Answer Man

Did you ‘graduate from college’ or ‘graduate college’?

Q: When did people stop saying “I graduated from college in ... ” and start saying “I graduated college in ... ”? More important, how can we make them stop?

S.G., of Columbia

A: What would you say if I told you that a century ago you would have been the oddball?

It’s true. If you’d use the Google Ngram Viewer to search printed materials in 1920, you’d find that people were writing what they had written for decades — “was graduated from.”

Back then, the thinking was that you could not graduate from anywhere until a principal or dean handed you that sheepskin, according to Mignon Fogarty, a writer and website editor who writes the Grammar Girl blog. Thus, parents and language mavens in general believed it imperative to say that Susie was graduated from (or, almost equally common, by) such-and-such a school. Over the years, it became standard English.

I suppose you could compare it to marriage. Technically, some might argue, you aren’t married until a man of the cloth, county clerk or justice of the peace says you are. Therefore, it’s not accurate to say “I married Bill” but rather “I was married to Bill” or “Bill and I were married by the Rev. So-and-So.”

But much to the dismay sometimes of those who have grown up with things said or done a certain way, the English language evolves. I was reminded of this recently while watching an engrossing modern update of “Richard III” called “Teenage Dick.” In it, a junior at a contemporary high school occasionally would start spouting the prose of Shakespeare — e.g., “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” You can imagine the derisive laughter he earned from his classmates. The audience joined in, too. We just don’t talk like that anymore.

The same happened to “was graduated from.” By 1963, Mignon says, language scholar H.L. Mencken declared in his book “The American Language” that the Americans’ desire to simplify their language had not only made the shorter and active “graduated from” acceptable but had overtaken “was graduated from” in popularity. And if you call up Ngram Viewer, you’ll see that the graph for “was graduated from” looks like a ski run from a peak in 1920 to almost nil in 2000. I can just hear our great-grandparents tsk-tsking.

Now the same thing is happening with the transition from “graduated from college” to simply “graduated college.” According to the Google Ngram, this new, even more abbreviated version was rarely used until about 1957, when it seemed to take off for about five years before falling back as if users were still testing the waters. But as you note, since 1970 the graph looks like Mount Everest — and the peak keeps getting higher.

When she wrote about the subject in 2008, Mignon found it already was being used twice as much as “graduated from.” At the time, Mignon, like you, plunged through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, rapidly reaching anger and full-blown depression. You would never say “I went college” so why do people find “I graduated college” acceptable?

“What kind of education are these kids getting?” she said at the time. “It’s a disgrace! If it’s really that bad out there, what is the point of even doing a grammar podcast? Nobody cares. Nobody listens. It’s a lost cause ... ”

But three years later, Mignon revisited the issue with a slight change of heart, noting that “graduated college” is increasingly seen as acceptable even in published work. She isn’t throwing in the towel, but refers to “Garner’s Modern American Usage” by Bryan Garner, who gives a 1-5 rating to new usages, with 5 being completely acceptable. To “graduated college” he gives a 3, which, in a comparison to golf, might be akin to a bogey but not a tee shot into the drink.

“My advice is to be refined,” Mignon (and every other expert I can find) concluded. “Hit a hole-in-one and stick with ‘graduated from college.’ It will make your English teachers proud.”

As for me, I honestly must say that while I certainly understand the linguistic error and would not use it myself, it’s low on my fingernails-on-the-chalkboard list of English offenses. It’s short and commonly understood. Besides, you know what people say usually happens once the genie is left out of the bottle.

I suppose I’m just overjoyed we haven’t devolved into “Johnny grdu8s HS 2nite!!!” At least, not yet.

Today’s trivia

Where could you drive on the War on Terror Memorial Highway?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: If Tony Bennett ever wanted to really bring down the house, he’d sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” while accompanying himself on the accordion. After all, the often scorned squeezebox is the City by the Bay’s official instrument. It has been since April 1990, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 6-4 to so honor it. The accordion has enjoyed a long, colorful history in San Francisco, and officials hoped that the designation would boost the city’s image after the devastating Oct. 17, 1989, earthquake.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer