Graduation Grammar: Alumn, Cum Laude, Emeritus … And More

www.RuthlessEditor.comSpring 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+)

Post graduation
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.

Post retirement
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.

Note: Emeritus designation can be applied to other retired dignitaries such as a pastor, bishop, pope, director, president, prime minister and others.

As it does with other titles, Associated Press style suggests using capital letters for those that precede a name and using lowercase for those that follow a name:

Harvard University Professor Emeritus Seth Simon will address our group on Tuesday.
Seth Simon, professor emeritus of Harvard University, will address our group on Tuesday.

If your organization has a style guide, check it for recommendations. Gender designations are changing, and there might be updated ways to use these steeped-in-tradition Latin terms.

Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, & Forms of Address will tell you everything you want to know about how to properly address those in society with titles. Author Robert Hickey has for decades been teaching at The Protocol School of Washington.

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.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)