By Kathleen Watson (used with permission)
Spring brings graduations, along with confusion about use and misuse of related terms. Let’s clear up a few.
Do you say: “Seth graduated Harvard University last week.”
What about: “Becca will graduate Clemmons High School in May.”
Neither is correct. Why?
Because Seth is not graduating Harvard; he is not causing Harvard to graduate.
Nor is Becca graduating the school named Clemmons.
Harvard University and Clemmons High School are conferring graduation status by awarding a degree to Seth and a diploma to Becca.
The correct way to express these accomplishments is:
Seth is graduating from Harvard University.
Beth is graduating from Clemmons High School.
Graduating with honor
There are three levels of graduating with honor (cum pronounced koom; laude pronounced loudy):
Cum laude: Graduating with honor (grade point average of 3.5–3.7)
Magna cum laude: Graduating with great honor (grade point average 3.8–3.9)
Summa cum laude: Graduating with highest praise (grade point average of 4.0+)
Moving on, once Seth graduates, he will become a Harvard alumnus.
When Becca graduates, she will become a Clemmons alumna.
Alumnus refers to one male graduate.
Alumna refers to one female graduate.
Alumni is the plural of alumnus, but it also can refer to a group of mixed-gender graduates.
Alumnae is the plural of alumna, referring to a group of female graduates.
A shortcut and easy way to avoid errors when using these Latin terms is to use alum for a graduate of any gender and alums for any group of graduates. However, I recommend using these generic terms only in informal contexts.
A retired university professor is referred to as a professor emeritus.
A retired female university professor often is referred to as a professor emerita.
However, not every retired professor is granted this honorific; the educational institution from which a professor retires decides to whom it grants this honor.
Nor does everyone agree that it is necessary to distinguish a male from a female when it comes to retirees from academia. Professor is a gender-neutral term, so some claim that emeritus is appropriate for any gender.
If you’re graduating this spring, sincere congratulations! If you’re attending a graduation, best wishes to you and yours. I’m sure your support has been vital to the success of your friend or family member.
And please don’t say or write that a graduate “received” a degree. Honor the accomplishment with the appropriate verb: Graduates “earn” a degree.
Kathleen calls herself the Ruthless Editor. She has created Grammar for People Who Hate Rules to help people write and speak with authority and confidence. Kathleen can be reached at email@example.com.