About nine years ago, I received from a quite insistent source the claim that the verb "to graduate" is transitive, and, specifically, that the intransitive usage was wrong. For example, the following are claimed to be correct:

  • The university graduates you.
  • You've been graduated! [You have been graduated by . . .]
  • I graduated university X!
  • I graduated from university X!

(The last is interesting since it actually doesn't have an object; it has a prepositional phrase). While e.g. the following are claimed to be incorrect:

  • I graduated.
  • You won't graduate!

This has led to this question, which establishes that both uses are acceptable in modern usage, but that the intransitive usage was less common in the past. Not wrong, mind you, just less common.

Looking in dictionaries, it seems that Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and TheFreeDictionary indeed all support both usages as correct. Something interesting happens with Oxford. The most complete definition is on the sub-site for American English and lists intransitive as the primary definition with two different types of transitive usage as being "informal" and "North American".

Under all this, I would like to ask a related question:

Is there any merit to the claim that the intransitive usage of "to graduate" is wrong?

The claim specifically is that the intransitive usage is a modern invention (>1900), and that dictionaries have shifted to allow it. Is this indeed the case? Or, has the intransitive usage always been allowed but just was less common before now?

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    Your "insistent source" is mistaken. One of the two "transitive" definitions for graduate in OED says Now rare exc. U.S., and the other is marked with the symbol (meaning it's obsolete). The intransitive usage was first recorded 1807. Oct 12, 2014 at 19:52
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    I think that this is one of those "How do you pronounce shibboleth?" instances in which even the insistent holdout is well aware that a mountain of contrary current usage overshadows his or her hill of beans—and yet it is imagined to be a mark of superior education or more genteel training or something to defy the mountain. I doubt that any evidence based on actual usage would sway such a person, but I don't think that deferring to the person's preferences would serve any useful purpose either.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 12, 2014 at 20:25
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    'Oxford' as an attribution is inadequate. And disingenuous; many would assume that very authoritative work, the OED, while you merely cite ODO here. 'Oxford' might even mean Professor John Sydney Oxford, the English virologist. Oct 12, 2014 at 21:44
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    Also, the title at least connotes a false premise: The meaning of a word does not depend on its derivation; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymological_fallacy.– TimLymington Oct 12, 2014 at 21:48
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    @EdwinAshworth: I provided the links to the sources. If anyone actually cared enough to know exactly the source, they could follow them. Considering that the ODO and the OED are both published by the same lexicographers, and that I further provided a link to "oxforddictionaries.com", I doubt anyone will be confused in either of the ways you object.¶ Concerning the title, I am actually unsure of your precise objection. I never suggested that the meaning of "To Graduate" depends on its derivation; the question is whether there is any historical basis for a claim about its usage.
    – geometrian
    Oct 13, 2014 at 5:38

2 Answers 2


The oldest senses documented in OED 1 are transitive, dating from the end of the 16th century (“To admit to a university degree”) and early 17th century (“To qualify (a person) for a degree”).

However, intransitive senses—“To take a university degree”, “To qualify as...”—have been around since the early 19th century. Dr Johnson accounted a century adequate to establish a poet’s reputation, so I think two centuries will suffice to establish a new use for a word.

Remarkably, OED 1’s earliest citations for the intransitive senses are from the poet Southey; and it was in Southey’s circle that another innovation first emerged into written English, damned by contemporary grammarians as an “awkward perversion”, a “solecism too palpable to receive any favor”—the passive progressive construction.


Copy and paste answers aren't worth much, so please forgive me, but this entry in the American Heritage Dictionary answers it so well.

Usage Note: The verb graduate has denoted the action of conferring an academic degree or diploma since at least 1421. Accordingly, the action of receiving a degree should be expressed in the passive, as in She was graduated from Yale in 1998. This use is still current, if old-fashioned, and is acceptable to 78 percent of the Usage Panel. In general usage, however, it has largely yielded to the much more recent active pattern (first attested in 1807): She graduated from Yale in 1998. Eighty-nine percent of the Panel accepts this use.... When the institution's responsibility is emphasized, however, the older pattern may still be recommended. A sentence such as The university graduated more computer science majors in 1997 than in the entire previous decade stresses the university's accomplishment, say, of its computer science program.

If it's been used transitively since 1807, how can there be any merit to the argument that it's wrong? Two hundred years is a long time when it pertains to usage.

The intransitive use still has a place, however, as noted above. "I graduated Yale in 1989" sounds weird to me, though I'm sure it's common. It implies, though (to me), that the person who graduated conferred some academic status on the university. Mostly, I hear "I graduated from X in 1989" (these days, later).

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    I think you've got your transitive/intransitive usages a bit mixed up there. OED's definition first recorded 1807 is the intransitive version: Four years are then to be passed at college before the student can graduate. Oct 12, 2014 at 20:24
  • @FumbleFingers - ah, people with access to the OED have a great advantage. The rest of us must struggle along under the burden of error all the time. ') Oct 12, 2014 at 20:27
  • @StoneyB - thank you! Hmm, this ought to help things... Oct 12, 2014 at 20:40
  • @StoneyB - Shoot. Page not found. :( Oct 12, 2014 at 20:41
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    Well, you could, but it's extremely tedious because the links at archive.org don't tell you which volumes they link to. Oct 12, 2014 at 21:13

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