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Language, style and culture

by on April 11, 2013

It’s often said that language defines our cultural identity and the way we view the world. In the press, style guides do the same. They regulate, to an extent, the connotations writers make across many publications (think AP Style).

Yesterday Romenesko published an internal memo sent to USA Today staffers informing them of new style guidelines surrounding unauthorized immigrants.

“We will no longer use the term illegal immigrant outside of direct quotes,” the memo stipulated first.

The term illegal immigration is acceptable, but do not label people as illegal immigrants, except in direct quotes. Undocumented immigrant, undocumented worker and unauthorized immigrant are acceptable terms — depending on accuracy, clarity and context — for foreign nationals who are in the country illegally. An alternative is to use a phrase such as “people who entered the U.S. illegally” or “living in the country without legal permission.”

Avoid using the word alien to refer to immigrants, except in quoted matter or official government designations. Do not use illegal or illegals as a noun. It is considered pejorative by most immigrants. Migrant can be used instead of immigrant in a tight space.

It’s interesting that the connotation a phrase has engendered supersedes its literal meaning in the press (AP made a similar change last week). I understand that using “illegal” or “illegals” can be pejorative, but that “illegal immigrant” is, and “people who entered the U.S. illegally” and “migrant” are not feels grammatically unreasonable.


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