AP Illegal Immigrants: Dropping the Word "Illegals" Isn't About Political Correctness


I've seen two articles in the past week or so that validate my dogged (a.k.a. annoying) insistence on the use of accurate vocabulary. First is the Associated Press's announcement that it will strike "illegal immigrant" as the phrase to describe those living in the country illegally ("illegal" can still be used, but only to refer to the action), and the second, a NYT editorial about nouns-as-verbs by Henry Hitchings.

My friends will be the first to tell you that I'm a word whore and a grammar Nazi (that's so un-PC! some might say, but more about that later). To that, I retort: words and grammar are a vital arsenal to convey ideas precisely and accurately (so I will abide by my whoredom, thankyouverymuch)The AP's new ruling on the word is no more an infiltration of liberal politics into style books than it is an objective, semantic choice based on precedent.

Based on AP's past decisions to rid words that label groups in a blanketed way, the AP concluded that "illegal immigrant" harbors the same subjective or loaded judgement of character and not necessarily action, much like the AP's new section on mental health prefers "diagnosed with schizophrenia" over "ya big schizophrenic!" Here's the new rule:

illegal immigration: Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

The AP argued that it is unfair especially to characterize the term for children of parents who entered the U.S. illegally. I see a little bit of gray area for children who were already born at the time of illegal entry (i.e. they were not born on American soil), but as far as I'm concerned, the label of "illegal immigrant" is an unfair (and unjustified) description of their character. Yes, they might have immigrated illegally, but are they people of questionable moral disposition, born or nurtured to maliciously deceive? 

Also noteworthy is AP's addendum to the usage of ideas and words surrounding illegal immigration:

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals, or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

With this, the AP is responding to the changing dialogue and ideas surrounding illegal immigration, which paints a more holistic image of the concept, phrase and context.

As for the use of verbs-as-nouns, I hate them but use them, too. As Hitchings points out, there are two different types of verbs-as-nouns, and in all cases, their use is a nuance or a stylistic choice. "What is the ask?" Hitchings says, is more distant than, say, "What is (s)he asking?" (Or to Raymond Chen, a Microsoft engineer's chagrin, "ask" as a noun is  just a straight up passive aggressive euphemism for "demand.")

Verbs-as-nouns also have a dramatic, captivating effect. The image accompanying Hitchings' article reminds me of that Gatorade commercial where Common (-swoon-) narrates the preparatory, performative, and restorative effectiveness of the sports drink. You remember this Before | During | After ad:


As for my aforementioned OK (see what I did there?) of words and phrases with questionable political correctness, the connotation or cultural context trumps the literal definition. Phrases like word whore or grammar Nazi are more an adage of nickname vernacular than true fact: I do not indiscriminately offer sexual services with dirty talk for pay (I reserve that pro bono for one person at the moment), nor do I go on a SS-style killing rampage of those with less regard for grammar.

What I hope you glean from all this is that language is relative, but it should be relative in a way that appropriately and accurately captures our lives in this time. And with that, I leave you with some more linguistic food for thought:

#YOLO: Epic fail or the great reveal of the millennial generation?