Three issues often arise during graduation season. One concerns the verb to graduate. Another concerns the need for apostrophes in the expressions associate’s degree, master’s degree, and bachelor’s degree. And the third issue concerns which programs of study (i.e., majors) should be capitalized and which should not.

Here are sentences for consideration:

  1. Our new employee was graduated from Newberry College.
  2. Our new employee graduated from Newberry College.
  3. Our new employee graduated Newberry College.
  4. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in finance.
  5. She earned a bachelors degree in business administration and a masters degree in finance.

The Verb To Graduate

Let’s begin with a discussion of the verb to graduate.

Most dictionaries—including Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language—agree that sentences 1 and 2 are both acceptable.

In the nineteenth century, the preferred use was the passive form (sentence 1). Since then, however, the intransitive sense (sentence 2) has become the most widely used and, as a result, has long been considered by lexicographers as acceptable, if not preferable. (Intransitive simply means that the subject—in this case, the employee—engaged in an action [graduated] but that action was not conferred upon anything or anyone else [e.g., a direct object] in the sentence.)

Most people would consider sentence 3 problematic. Webster’s claims that such usage is standard but points out that it is the least common of the three forms. (And remember that dictionaries tell us how people commonly use the language; they are not in the business of telling us how we might use it most logically.)

The American Heritage dictionary, however, considers this usage substandard, noting that 77 percent of its usage panel finds the use of to graduate in sentence 3 unacceptable.

I side with the American Heritage folks on this one on the basis of logic. In sentence 3, the verb is transitive active; that is, the sentence illogically suggests that the employee did something (graduated) to something else (Newberry College). We could perhaps argue that the “from” in the prepositional phrase “from Newberry College” is simply elliptical (i.e., structurally part of the sentence structure but not spoken or written), but I would reserve that usage for very informal contexts.

Sometimes the best choice in word usage depends upon the meaning the writer intends. In this case, if we want to place emphasis on the institution conferring the degrees rather than on the students who earned them, then it would be better to say, “Three hundred students were graduated from Newberry College in the spring” or even better (because it’s almost always better to have an active verb than a passive one), “Newberry College graduated three hundred students in the spring.”

Bottom line: Consider that the verb to graduate can mean either “to earn a degree” or “to confer a degree” and then decide which use is more appropriate in your sentence.

Use the Possessive Case in Reference to Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s Degrees

All dictionaries agree that when we write the names of academic degrees, we use the possessive forms because these words refer to a person at a certain level of training.

In the Middle Ages, a bachelor was a young knight-in-training. The bachelor’s degree became the name of the lowest degree a college or university can award. A master at that time was someone recognized in the guild system as having the highest level of expertise in a particular craft, above the apprentice and the journeyman. We now have the master’s degree—the next level of college degree above the bachelor’s but the lowest of the advanced degrees. Sentence 4, we thus understand, is correct, but not sentence 5.

What about Capitalization with a Degree?

When we refer to degrees generically—as we have in sentences four and five above—the first letter is not capitalized. Nor do we capitalize the disciplines in which the degrees are earned, unless they are languages. For example, we would write, “My daughter has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics (or psychology or biology, etc.) and my son has a master’s degree in English (or Spanish or French, etc.).”

Of course, if we are not writing in sentences but instead writing a heading, making a list, or perhaps identifying a speaker in a program—then we most likely would capitalize the type of degree and the discipline.

(Other articles in this blog address the tendency writers have to capitalize expressions inappropriately, including military ranks, job positions, certain kinds of words in titles, common nouns, and the spelling out of acronyms and initialisms.)

One Final Point about the Doctoral Degree

A person can earn a doctorate or a doctoral degree but not a doctorate degree.

For Further Reading

Learn more about the words alumnialumnusalumnae, and alumna (and why we should probably stop using all of them!) here.

Do you know a recent high school graduate who is heading off to college next fall? Consider sharing this article of advice and wisdom shared by college faculty with many decades of experience.

Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2005, 2019, 2022.