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Is this phrase incorrect or perhaps awkward?

John was inculcated with certain ideas.

The phrase comes naturally to me. But I decided to check, and I can find no examples of it being used.

Ngram viewer does return results but they're very minimal.

The definition of inculcate at Merriam-Webster is:

to teach and impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions

The synonyms at Thesaurus.com include:

impart, indoctrinate, instill

This seems OK:

John was indoctrinated with certain ideas.

Maybe this is one those kind of things where I've thought about it too much and now nothing sounds right.

5

Your usage of inculcate is slightly off.

In the active voice, somebody inculcates something in someone.

In the passive voice (as you've used), something is inculcated in someone [by somebody].

Here is an example:

Active: Cult leaders inculcated certain ideas in John.

Passive: Certain ideas were inculcated in John [by cult leaders].

To be sure, you can find your usage (active: inculcate someone with something; passive: be inculcated [by someone] with something) employed regularly:

Active: ? Cult leaders inculcated John with certain ideas.

Passive: ? John was inculcated [by cult leaders] with certain ideas.

But that usage hasn't really "hit the books" yet—that is, that's not how dictionaries recognize inculcate's usage.

Here is the OED's definition (login required):

inculcate, v. 1. transitive. To endeavour to force (a thing) into or impress (it) on the mind of another by emphatic admonition, or by persistent repetition; to urge on the mind, esp. as a principle, an opinion, or a matter of belief; to teach forcibly. Const. upon, on; †formerly in, into, unto, to.

This is from Cambridge:

to cause someone to have particular beliefs or values by repeating them frequently:

The goal is to inculcate in students a tolerance for people of other religions and races.


to fix beliefs or ideas in someone's mind, especially by repeating them often:

Our coach has worked hard to inculcate a team spirit in/into the players.

Modern lexicographer Bryan Garner says in Garner's Modern English Usage:

Inculcate is sometimes misused for indoctrinate. Although these are both transitive verbs (i.e. they take direct objects), the nature of the objects is different. One inculcates values into people; and one indoctrinates people with certain values . . . H.W. Fowler noted this aberration and called it "a curious mistake" . . . No longer is it curious, but it is still a mistake.

Of course you needn't obey the style and usage "authorities," and it's quite often better to ignore them in spoken, informal English. But they will come sniffing around your papers.

  • 1
    Some of the OED's definitions have not been changed for decades. For inculcate, their most recent citation in the online version is 1874. Lexico (a more up-to-date Oxford dictionary) gives in their thesaurus: he tries to inculcate students with a sense of the beauty and joy of the subject. The OP's usage is perfectly fine if you're not trying to speak early 20th century (or earlier) English. – Peter Shor Feb 12 at 22:30
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    @PeterShor: Lexico/Oxford is a descriptive lexicon focusing on how people currently use the language. That's great. As I noted, the OP's usage is regularly employed these days. But in formal writing, one will sooner or later run up against a traditionalist. – Tinfoil Hat Feb 13 at 0:10
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    Ah, this is exactly the kind of possibility I had in mind when I set out. So, if I understand, my usage is fine colloquially but it would be better to rephrase it to say "certain ideas were inculcated in John from childhood," yes? – dev_willis Feb 13 at 2:22
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    @dev_willis: Damned if I know what passes for fine or better around here. As an editor, I would go with the traditional usage of inculcate — up until that usage sounded less natural than any common usage. But we're nowhere near that point. – Tinfoil Hat Feb 13 at 4:42
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    Judging from this Ngram, inculcated with has been in relatively widespread use since the early 20th century. You can't possibly avoid all the grammatical innovations that have occurred in the last hundred years so as to avoid traditionalists. And as far as I can see, nobody is actively objecting to this one. – Peter Shor Feb 13 at 11:06
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Yes, that works. "Females were so inculcated with the belief that such clothing was proper, ..." "Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports" By Eileen McDonagh, Laura Pappano.

"... they were frequently presented as “savages and pagans” who had to be “christianized” and inculcated with the morals and values of “civilized” culture" "Sisters of the Academy: Emergent Black Women Scholars in Higher Education" by Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela, Anna Lucille

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