Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
When I started exploring graduation as my topic for this week’s post, I had no idea how profound it would become.
Oh sure, graduation is a profound event in a student’s life in the US, so of course the topic would be significant. But I just started with a notion that it’s graduation time of year, and many of you in the US are probably involved in graduation or have family members or friends who are graduating. So I thought I’d see what genres made up graduation, and I stumbled into the question of what the difference is between “graduation” and “commencement.” The list of genres I came up with is interesting and they’ll show up below, but the differences behind those two words led me to a deeper exploration of this whole significant action.
So what is the difference between “graduation” and “commencement”? I see two intriguing differences, each a little different in what it says about graduation.
First there’s the simple but I think interesting distinction between the achievement and its celebration.
I found the same distinction popping up as I searched the web, and it’s really pretty simple. Here’s a typical but nicely concise one, from the website of Normandale Community College (don’t ask how I got to Normandale Community College. I was deep down the rabbit hole by that time):
Graduation is the completion of all degree requirements as recorded on the official transcript.
Commencement is the ceremony; graduation is actually getting the degree. That difference shows up in the graduation announcement and invitation—you announce your graduation, but you invite to the commencement ceremony. In fact, though, people also invite others to the student’s graduation, and by that they mean the ceremony of walking across the stage, flipping the tassel, or otherwise being treated as someone who has completed the process of graduating.
But that’s usually not the graduation. At most schools (at least in the US), the conferring of degrees doesn’t happen at commencement itself, but later. Oh, it’s true that Yale University confers degrees at commencement, with one person accepting the conferral for a group. And I missed my doctoral hooding ceremony at the University of Michigan because that ceremony actually conferred the Ph.D. and so you had to have all requirements completed by April 4, before I’d finished. (Still a little sorry about that, in case you can’t tell. The MA’s could be hooded before they’d finished, but not the PhD’s. So I missed it. Maybe I should have a ceremony for those of us who missed our commencement, sort of like the proms thrown by adults who missed their senior proms. Yeah, I missed prom, too.)
But back to graduation—Most school sites link “graduation” to a list of steps to take and forms to complete to ensure that you’ve completed all the requirements to graduate. As the Normandale site said, you may go through commencement ceremonies, but you don’t graduate until your transcript says so. And the transcript won’t say so until you complete the degree requirements and fill out a form.
I’m not sure most people realize that fact, which may be why so many schools emphasize the need to follow the steps and fill out the forms. “Graduation” has lots of official genres connected to it, like completion forms, degree requirements, transcripts, and, in the end, if you complete all those hoops and institutional genres, a diploma.
“Commencement” is where all the fun genres live, the ceremonial stuff, like commencement addresses or graduation speeches (I found both words connected to the formal speeches), commencement programs, lists of graduates, processionals, academic regalia (caps and gowns), and graduation songs, though I don’t know if that counts as a genre since there’s really only one official graduation song—“Pomp and Circumstance,” officially Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, by Edward Elgar. (That song is not so much fun anymore after you’ve played it, as I did in the high school band, for hours and hours as the large graduating class all walked across the stage to it, one by one.)
So graduation is the real event, the action that makes you or your child or your role model different, that turns you into a high school or college graduate. It’s not proceeding into a gymnasium or stadium or walking across a stage or flipping your tassel from right to left. It’s completing the requirements and the forms. It’s the label on your transcript.
But commencement still matters, and it matters in a way equally profound. The word itself points there—to commencing, beginning, the start of something.
Here’s the first meaning of “commencement” from the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED:
The action or process of commencing; beginning; time of beginning."
The second meaning in the OED names the commencement ceremony.
The first meaning of “graduation” is to divide into portions on a scale, like degrees of latitude and longitude, a meaning I could link metaphorically, but I’ll stick to the more direct definition. For our meaning of “graduation,” the OED offers a sixth definition:
The action of receiving or conferring a university degree, or a certificate of qualification from some recognized authority
Going back to the verb, the OED defines “graduate”:
“intr. To take a university degree. Also (U.S.): to complete a high school course and receive a diploma."
Graduation is the completion, the taking, the receiving, the conferring of a degree. It’s an act of completion. It’s something that has been done.
But commencement, commencement is the beginning, a process, commencing, the start of something. With graduation you’re done. With commencement you’re just beginning.
So the transcript and degree requirements and forms all document what a graduate has achieved. And the speeches, processionals, and programs and songs all celebrate what will commence next.
In fact, the commencement ceremony looks both backward and forward. Speeches praise students for what they’ve achieved and encourage them toward their next adventures. The University of Michigan offers a lofty definition that shows both:
“Commencement is a milestone—one of life’s landmark occasions, a time when graduates, family members, and friends gather to celebrate past and future.”
Past and future. Nostalgia for good times with friends and excitement about new friends and experiences to come. Honors and awards for the work just accomplished, and admission letters and scholarships—or job offers and salaries—for the work coming next. Graduation and commencement. One is hard work and achievement, completed in private and recorded in documents most people never see. The other is new challenges and opportunities, celebrated in public through pomp and circumstance.
The Elgar organization offers a reason Pomp and Circumstance is played at American commencements:
“The reason for the popularity of the march has to do with Elgar's ability to invent melodies that convey a complex of emotions. The tune manages to sound triumphant, but with an underlying quality of nostalgia, making it perfectly suited to a commencement that marks the beginning of one stage of life, but the end of another.”
Just in case you can take a little more—There’s even a grammar issue that connects to this moment of looking backward and forward at the same time. And I think it’s a bit profound, too.
Is it “graduated from college” or “graduated college”?
In 2014, NPR posted their “Grammar Hall of Shame,” I’m sorry to say, and number 9 of their top 10 “most misused word or phrase” involves graduation:
“Saying someone "graduated college" instead of "graduated from college." A college graduates a student, not the other way around. The "from" makes a big difference.”
Well, according to the OED, the transitive use of graduate, as in “A college graduates a student,” is archaic.
After objecting to this usage, Business Insider reports that they noticed two recent news stories with the awful “graduated college.” Um, if USA Today and even The Washington Post uses “graduated college,” I don’t think I’d sweat it anymore, or add it to the Grammar Hall of Shame.
My quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a fun resource, if you don’t know it) found 23 instances of the verb form “graduate college” in both spoken, fiction, and news sources. That’s opposed to 203 instances of “graduate from college,” including the snootiest academic sources. So yes, “graduate from” seems more accepted than “graduate college,” but it sure seems to be acceptable in speech and newspapers.
But anyway . . .
Notice a subtle difference in meaning between “she graduated college” and “she graduated from college.”
To say she graduated college is to say she’s done, the action is over. She finished college. She graduated it.
To say she graduated from college implies something more to come. She graduated from college to something else. Compare “I moved from Lawrence” . . . to . . . where? “She went from shy to assertive.” “I took the lettuce from the fridge.” You may not have to say where that lettuce is headed next, but you know it’s headed somewhere now that you got it from the fridge. Maybe it’s headed toward great things, a great salad.
So “graduating from college” implies something more, having finished college, yes, but heading toward something else. From college to . . .
In this graduation time of year, I recognize the need for both graduation and commencement. The two words looking backward and forward. The two actions showing what has been done and what’s still to come.
Graduation from what was past
Commencement of the future
I probably knew that already, on some level. Graduation is a time of finishing one stage of life and moving on to the next. But how cool is it that our language represents that in so many ways, not just with an institutional distinction between the completed degree and the ceremony, but with different genres looking different directions, with different word associations and implications, maybe even a contested grammatical distinction.
And how cool is graduation! To all of you who are graduating this year, to all of you who are attending the commencement ceremony for someone else—whether college, high school, or even the relatively new graduation from middle school or even kindergarten!—and to all of you who remember what it was like, I’ve gathered the most relevant, most (in)appropriate graduation messages from across the intersphere:
All that hard work for a piece of paper? Congratulations on getting your piece of paper.
And no graduation wishes would be complete without Dr. Seuss, so my last wish for you graduates:
Graduate from the places you've been and commence with