Two issues often arise during graduation season. One is with the verb to graduate, and the other concerns the need for apostrophes in the expressions master’s degree and bachelor’s degree. Which of these sentences are problematic?

  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 transitive 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.

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

Sometimes the best choice in word usage depends upon the meaning the writer intends. In the present 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 “Newberry College graduated three hundred students in the spring.” Consider that the verb to graduate can mean either “to earn a degree” (intransitive) or “to confer a degree” (transitive) and then decide which use is more appropriate in your sentence.

The Possessive Case of Bachelor’s and Master’s

All dictionaries agree that when we write the names of academic degrees, we use the possessive forms because these words refer to the person who is 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, and sentence 5 is unacceptable.

Notice, too, that when we refer to degrees generically–as we have in these examples–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.).”

For Further Reading

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

Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2005, 2019.