LEX in the CITY: Tackling tough questions

Melissa Martinez

by Mellissa Martinez

Last week, I received a letter that posed some very specific language questions. Thank you Linda and Paul for reading the column and also for giving me some topics to tackle for this month’s article. Given that graduation is just around the corner for some, let’s begin with your first question: Where did “graduated high school” not “graduated from high school” originate? 

To evaluate the historical changes of the word ‘graduate,’ one must first understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb takes an object—in other words, there is a possible answer to what or whom. Consider the transitive verb ‘eat’ in “John ate a pizza.” Pizza answers the question “ate what?” which means that pizza is the object of eat. An intransitive verb does not take an object. Consider the intransitive verb ‘come’ in “John came to the party.” There is no answer to came what? or came whom? The prepositional phrase ‘to the party’ tells us location but does not directly answer the question of what or whom. We would never say “John came the party.”

The word ‘graduate’ comes originally from the Latin gradus, ‘grade or step,’ which signified that a ‘step up’ was conferred by the institution—not taken by the student. This now-rare verb ‘to be graduated’ was considered transitive. In the sentence “John was graduated,” the student is the object. If the institution was mentioned, it was preceded by the preposition ‘at’ or ‘by’ as in “John was graduated at/by Claremont High School” or put in the subject position as in “CHS graduated John.”

Around the 1800s, things began to change as the verb transitioned from transitive to intransitive. People began putting the student in subject position and found that there was no object of ‘graduate.’ In these early days, the sentence “John graduated high school” was unthinkable because high school is clearly not the object of graduate. Since the intransitive ‘graduate’ could not take an object, the preposition ‘from’ was needed to state where the action originated.

By the end of the 1800s, this form was much more popular than the archaic transitive version and the common use became “John graduated from high school.”

It is still correct, but uncommon, to use the transitive “CHS graduated John”; it is correct and common to use the intransitive “John graduated from CHS” but it is incorrect, and increasingly more common, to omit the ‘from’ as in, “John graduated high school.” So, why do people do it? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that speakers associate it with the original transitive version “CHS graduated John.” Perhaps they think it sounds more correct or more original to omit the ‘from.’

According to language blogger (and strict rule follower) Grammar Girl, the expression “graduate high school” is twice as likely to be used as “graduate from high school.” She has no tolerance for the mistake. From her standpoint, those who omit ‘from’ sound illiterate. As I see it, the error has become so frequent that it is now acceptable to many. In fact, I’ve read and heard it from those who consider themselves strict grammarians. This, of course, is when language changes. I suspect that ‘graduated’ is well on its way to independence from ‘from,’ and we will all have to get used to it (even Grammar Girl).

On to the second question: why is “healthy” used interchangeably with “healthful?” In recent years, the two adjectives have been in somewhat of a linguistic tug of war and it appears that ‘healthy’ is winning.

Both are derived from Old English haelth, ‘soundness of body.’ The adjective ‘healthful’ appeared before ‘healthy’ in the late 1300s, meaning ‘wholesome or saving.’ ‘Healthy’ came later in the mid-1500s, and most sources state that both ‘healthful’ and ‘healthy’ were used interchangeably in these early centuries. Toward the end of the 1800s, however, a distinction was created; ‘Healthful’ came to describe inanimate nouns like food, diet or activity, while ‘healthy’ was sanctioned for people and other living creatures. In other words, healthy people eat a healthful diet.

In recent years, it seems that ‘healthy’ is migrating back to its earlier meaning of ‘beneficial to one’s health.’ It is now quite common to hear expressions like “healthy diet” and “healthy lifestyle.” Despite criticism from purists, some dictionaries, including Miriam Webster, acknowledge healthy’s reemergence as an adjective to mean “good for one’s health.”

Perhaps there will be disagreement on this shift in the coming years, but I suspect that when it comes to ‘healthy,’ there is one area where grammar grouches and slouches can agree: healthy is not an adverb! Although I’m inclined to accept language change, even I cringe at the expression “I eat healthy every day.”

As for the third question, I am confused because I have not heard of this mistake. The question is: Where did “a apple” rather than “an apple” originate?  I am not aware of ‘a apple’ being commonly used by anyone over the age of nine. There may be some dialects of English where the rule of adding ‘n’ to an indefinite article before a vowel is ignored. I suspect that in such cases there is a hard glottal stop after the ‘a’ to differentiate between the ‘a’ and the vowel sound of the next word. In this case, the sentence would sound more like, “can you hand me a’apple?”

Many people believe that the grammar rule says to add ‘n’ to the indefinite article ‘a’ before a vowel. In fact, that doesn’t really cover it. Consider the words ‘hour’ and ‘university’. We certainly don’t say “a hour” or “an university.” These examples underscore the idea that ‘n’ is added before a vowel sound, not a vowel.

As for the final inquiry: why has subject/verb agreement been abandoned? I’m not sure if it has been abandoned or ignored, but I am interested to hear some examples. I will note that subject-verb agreement is not always as easy at it seems. Are the abandoners making a mistake with indefinite pronouns such as “each of the students are present?” Are they confusing the difficult neither-nor rule as in “neither my students nor my son are graduating this year?” These types of agreement can be tricky. In the first case, ‘each’ takes a singular verb even when followed by a plural prepositional phrase, so the correct sentence would be “each of the students is present.” In the case of ‘nor,’ the verb agrees with its closest subject (even when there are two subjects), so the correct sentence would be “neither my students nor my son is graduating this year.”

When it comes to these more complicated combinations, I confess to being a little confused at times myself. Linda and Paul, if you are hearing more basic subject-verb disagreements, please, by all means, send a report and keep me posted—we certainly don’t want disagreements within the community, especially those between subjects and verbs.



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