Column: Untangling intransitive verbs


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

I ran into my friend Lou at the farmers market on Saturday, and she looked troubled. This wasn’t because the sweet corn wasn’t in season yet, but because it’s graduation season and she had a very good reason to be bothered.

She immediately asked, “People don’t graduate college; they graduate from college…right?” I really can’t tell you how happy I am that people find me at the farmers market to ask me grammar questions. And, I’ll go ahead and leave you with this cliffhanger: We’ll tackle why farmers market needs no apostrophe next week.

You would never say “I sat floor” or “He arrived Oklahoma,” would you? That sounds ridiculous. “I graduated” on its own is a complete sentence. So is “I sat” or “He arrived.” These are short, but sweet, complete sentences.

The key here is that “graduated” in the sentence “I graduated from college” operates as an intransitive verb, which doesn’t allow or take a direct object. Here’s an example of a transitive verb sentence: Byron launched the cat into orbit. Here, “launched” is a transitive verb. Not only is it an active verb, but it also allows for at least one direct object (in this instance only one). The direct object here (cat) receives the action (launched) from the subject (Byron).

So, now let’s look at why “I graduated college” doesn’t work. For the sentence to pass muster, “college” would need to be a direct object. That would mean the direct object (college) receives the action (graduated) from the subject (I). This just doesn’t make sense.

Now, let’s look at why “I graduated from college” does work. Here, “graduated” functions as an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take a direct object. Fellow word nerds already recognize “from college” as a prepositional phrase in which “from” is the preposition and “college” is the prepositional object. Now, this sentence works!

If you find yourself at a graduation open house this weekend, make sure the grad doesn’t say “I graduated high school.” If you do, let the money inside the graduation card slip out into your pocket and demand that he enroll in summer school to remedy this egregious grammar goof.