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Hiding from my dissertation in a little alcove under the stairs on the bottom floor of the library, I was scanning through a book of grammar gripes. One of them was the common objection to transitive usage of the verb graduate. For instance, people will sometimes say:

(1) Now that they’ve graduated high school they can set their goals on college.

Those of an older bent will be more familiar with an intransitive usage where the graduated institution appears in an ablative* prepositional phrase:

(2) Yesterday the heir to the Notorious B.I.G. throne, young Tyanna graduated from high school at an undisclosed location.

And, you may be thinking, darn right! It’s graduated from, and it’s always been, and the kids are screwing up the language again. And it’s true that the transitive form in (1) is newer and seems to be gaining in popularity.** But it turns out that graduate from isn’t the original form, either. It used to be graduated at, as in this 1871 example:

(3) He graduated at Williams College in 1810, and studied theology with the Rev. Samuel Austin, DD, of Worcester, Mass.

So already, just going back 140 years, we’ve seen transitions from graduated at to graduated from to the plain graduated. But there’s an even more substantial change in the history of graduate. Graduating used to be something a school did to its students, not something the students did to the school. One was graduated at some school — witness this 1827 list of folks that Harvard graduated, such as:

(4) Jabez Chickering, Esq., son of Rev. Jabez Chickering, was graduated at Harvard University, in 1804; and settled in the profession of law in this town.

I’ve put together a Google Books N-grams graph illustrating the changes over time:

[The history of graduate]

Interestingly, it looks like the forms in (3) and (4) were both in use throughout 19th century American English. That’s a bit surprising because the two forms assign different roles to their subjects, but it just goes to show that grammatical ambiguity is tolerable when there’s no chance of confusing the roles. (It’s always clear that the person is getting the degree, and the university issuing it.) We see was graduated at start dropping off in the second half of the 19th century, graduated at remaining strong until the early 20th century, and graduated from taking off from there.

So while I graduated high school may not yet be standard, it will be, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It just isn’t what people used to say. For whatever reason, the younger generation likes to change how graduation works. There’s no reason to fret over it; it’ll change, and life will go on, and our kids will be just as grumpy as us when their kids re-reinvent the word’s usage.

*: Ablative is one of a set of words describing the cases that can be marked in a language. Ablative in particular indicates motion away from something; Wikipedia has a list of these, including such fun ones as illative and inessive. (Valid only for certain definitions of “fun”.)

**: I’m a little surprised, but I don’t see any clear evidence in Google Books N-grams or the Corpus of Historical English of the transitive usage growing faster than the ablative intransitive. I suspect this is due to a strong avoidance of the transitive usage in writing, which both of these corpora are based on.

I went to buy something the other day using a credit card, but I screwed up somehow and the machine ended up cancelling the transaction. It announced this to me in a message that persisted on the screen for an interminable twenty seconds as “The transaction has been canceled.” For those twenty seconds, all I could think about — aside from my lingering fear that perhaps my card had been disabled and now I was never going to be able to get whatever doubtlessly important object I was trying to buy — was that that message just didn’t look right to me.

I’ve always written the past tense of cancel with two L’s. It’s cancelled to me, cancelling as well. Because I’m not as familiar with the canceled spelling, it occasionally triggers a strange “can-sealed” pronunciation in my head. This is presumably because my brain follows one of those standard heuristics of English pronunciation, that a single vowel followed by a single consonant and an e means to make the first vowel long and silence the e. That’s what we have in such words as rile, smote, or gale. And it’s especially prominent to me since it’s in my first name (Gabe).

This pronunciation heuristic is generally followed in tense changes as well; the verb pan becomes panned in its past tense, with two n‘s, to maintain the short a sound. Without the double n, it’d be paned, which I’d pronounce, well, like paned (as in double-paned glass).

And yet I’ve noticed more and more over the years that my countrymen disagree with me. In error messages I see a single l, leaving me even more depressed about the error. The AP Stylebook disagrees with me too. But why? What caused Americans to move away from the general English spelling heuristic?

"Cancelled" written on a chalkboard

Ah, much better.

I didn’t know, but if there’s anyone who could shed light on this, it’s Ben Zimmer. He puts it at the foot of Noah Webster, the American Samuel Johnson. Webster compiled the first dictionary of American English, and consciously sought to distance American English from British English, which he saw as corrupted by the aristocracy. Because Webster was codifying American English as a dialect separate from the standards of British English, this gave him the ability to make the changes he saw as appropriate to the American forms.

One of the major changes he wanted made was spelling reform, and so in Webster’s first dictionary (1828, available in searchable form here), we see the beginning of many Anglo-American debates: colour appeared as color, centre was switched to center, and our target cancel was listed with past tense canceled, present progressive canceling, and noun form cancelation.* His idea here was to push for easier or more natural or more accurate (relative to pronunciation) spellings. The u doesn’t get pronounced in colour? Gone. Centre isn’t pronounced cent-ruh? Switch it. Cancelled doesn’t have a double-l sound? Smash ’em together.

Some of Webster’s revisions took over pretty quickly. A quick glance at Google N-grams shows color surging in AmEng in the 1830s, and surpassing colour by 1850. Center took longer, but still surpassed centre by the turn of the century.

But others, like canceled, stayed on the sidelines. Oh, canceled grew in popularity, but it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the two forms evened out, and it wasn’t until the ’80s that canceled finally asserted itself as the more common form.** Personally, I think that sluggishness is because this spelling change doesn’t make as much sense as the others. The second l may be silent, but it tells you not to change the stem vowel’s pronunciation, and thus it has something of a purpose.

Google N-Grams chart of the slow rise of "canceled"

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that Webster was primarily a descriptivist, compiling a dictionary wherein he was looking to accurately capture the American form of English. But he prescribed a new spelling for a large set of words, and now his changes, which for years were held in lower esteem, are becoming the thing that prescriptivists demand adherence to.

Unfortunately, in his attempt to simplify matters, Webster introduced new confusion. I don’t see how it’s easier to remember not to put in an extra l when all the similar words double their last letter. And worse, Webster’s changes didn’t fully take. Sure, canceled and canceling are doing fine, but cancelation never caught on. Thus the AP Stylebook (and many other usage guides) have the inflections of cancel as canceled, canceling, cancellation, which is needlessly complicated in my mind.

And so that’s the deal. In American English, single-l canceled is the common form, almost thrice as common as cancelled according to Google N-grams. There will probably be a day where the double-l form will look as old and affected as centre in American English, but that point isn’t here yet. Use whichever form you like more. Me? I like the across the board double-l forms. (Of course I do; I was born just before canceled surpassed cancelled.)

*: Webster also included the fun adjectival form cancelated, which I hope to incorporate into my speech in the future.

**: I hope the non-Americans in the audience will forgive my focus on American English. None of these Websterian changes have surpassed the original form in the British English portion of Google N-grams, and I don’t have enough personal experience in non-American Englishes to say anything more than these numbers do.

According to some people, the first of these sentences is perfectly fine, while the second has a common but nevertheless gutting mistake in it:

(1a) His romp through the woods was pleasant enough, but ending up in poison oak again aggravated his rash.
(1b) The constant itching over the next week left him quite aggravated.

That’s because these people believe that aggravate to mean “irritate” or “annoy” is a newfangled and improper meaning. To them, aggravate has but one meaning, and that is its earlier meaning of “to worsen”.

However, it turns out that neither of these are the original meaning of aggravate, which was “to make heavier”. In fact, this was the meaning with which aggravate was borrowed into English from Latin in the 15th century. That meaning has been all but lost in contemporary English — one can’t say “I aggravated the pick-up with my moving boxes” and expect people to make sense of that. So if you think you’re defending aggravate by sticking to its original usage, you’re doubly wrong.

Well, you might say, the “worsen” meaning is old enough, and the “irritate” meaning is still pretty new, so that’s why I’m against it. But that argument doesn’t hold water either; the first attestation of the “irritate” meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary is all the way back in 1611, only 15 years after the first “worsen” attestation.

The “irritate” meaning is a metaphorical extension of the original meaning; “make heavier” gets metaphorically extended to “add mental burdens” (think of other weight/thought/concern metaphors such as “weigh heavily on one’s mind”, “heavy thinking”, “weighing options”, etc.). From there it’s only a short hop to “irritate”, and we made it.

There’s no real loss in doing this. No significant ambiguity is gained by having these two meanings of aggravate. One can’t irritate an inanimate object, so (1a) is clearly using the “worsen” meaning. One can’t worsen a person, so (1b) is clearly using the “irritate” meaning.

The antarctic explorer aggravated the sled with his heavy supplies, which had aggravated his shoulder injury, which had aggravated him.

There’re a few other complaints I’ve heard about the “irritate” meaning of aggravate. One is that there are too many words to mean “irritate” and not enough to mean “worsen”. But that presumes that the “irritate” meaning is eliminating the “worsen” meaning, and I don’t think that’s the case. Anyone who follows sports is familiar with the crushing feeling of their favorite player aggravating their existing injuries. Is this meaning losing ground? Probably. Might it disappear eventually, leaving behind only idioms like “aggravated assault”? Possibly, but that’s what language does. Why isn’t anyone shedding tears over the loss of a good word meaning “to make heavier”?

Another occasional argument I see is that aggravate meaning “irritate” is “less precise”, and I’m not really clear on what that’s supposed to mean. Less precise than using irritate? Irritate can also mean “inflame” (as in eye irritant) and has an obscure legal meaning of “make void”. The example I always give for how this “imprecision” problem is not a problem is mean. The word mean can mean so many things (average, grouchy, etc.), and yet we somehow encounter no problems from this lack of precision. In fact, the imprecision of language can be beneficial; compare your imprecise conversations with your friends to the precise language of your favorite legal contract.

The final objection is that aggravate meaning “irritate” is informal. (Jan Freeman discussed this in her column on aggravate.) This may have been the case at some point, but I am unconvinced that it is currently true. The Corpus of Contemporary American English provides various examples of this usage in modern formal academic writing, and Google Books can provide formal usages back into the 19th century. I suspect that the perceived informality is due the tendency of discussions of one’s feelings to be informal.

Summary: The “irritate” meaning of aggravate dates back to the 1600s, and it doesn’t interfere with the “worsen” meaning of aggravate. Neither is the original meaning of aggravate, either. There’s just no good reason to object to the “irritate” meaning.

At various points in my life, I finished up a task and excitedly, dutifully, or resignedly announced its completion by saying “I’m done”. And most of the times, this was met with a congratulation, or at least warm indifference. On rare occasions, it was met with a succinct rebuke:

“Cakes are done. People are finished.”

That was all; no explanation given, and me left sitting there wondering why, if the subject of cake was going to be broached, it wasn’t to give me one as a reward. Because the response was so untethered to rational explanation, I would quickly forget about it, only to be reminded each time that I bothered to tell this person that I was done.

Well, I’m done. And so’s the rule. Let me turn the floor over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):

Done in the sense of ‘finished’ has been subject to a certain amount of criticism over the years for reasons that are not readily apparent.”

The reasons aren’t unreadily apparent, either; they simply aren’t. MWDEU traces the prohibition against humans being done to MacCracken and Sandison’s 1917 book Manual of Good English, which offers no explanation for its impropriety. In the near-century since, no one else has found a reason for it either. What passes for a justification is that one-liner I quoted above; for instance, in one professor’s list of “errors to avoid“, we’re given this explanation, posted in its entirety:

“30. If something has been completed, it is finished–it is not ‘done’. Remember, cakes are done; people are finished.”

It looks to me that the real reason why people started complaining about this usage is that it had two signs of the prescriptivist devil: it was a new usage, and it was a non-standard usage. To be done, the MWDEU reports, supplanted to have done for states of being starting sometime in the 1700s or earlier, which on a prescriptivist timescale somehow counts as “new”. Furthermore, the OED classifies this usage as chiefly Irish, Scottish, American, and dialectal, which to a prescriptivist is just a long way of saying improper. And usually finished sounds fancier than done, which no doubt contributed to the distaste for done.

But unless you believe in 300-year-old grudges, there’s no reason to be against people being done. According to the OED, Thomas Jefferson used it, as did Jeremy Bentham (the philospoher, not the Lost character) and others. There’s no grammatical logic why done and finished are any different, either. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if it weren’t for its snappy motto, this injunction would long ago gone the way of the dodo. Let’s try to help it toward that fate.

Summary: Cakes are done; people are finished? Nope. Cakes can also be finished and people can also be done. And stop mentioning cake if you’re only teasing me.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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