Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

When ‘illegal’ becomes illegal

sprovost@thetribunenews.comMay 5, 2013 

With immigration a big topic in the news these days, it’s worth noting that The Associated Press recently decided to outlaw the use of the terms “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant.” Unless you’re a newspaper editor or someone who feels strongly one way or another about these terms, you probably haven’t noticed.

AP’s edict goes like this: “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. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.”

The AP’s move follows criticism of the terms, so its decision is understandable. Its rationale, however, is simply incorrect.

Whether you like the term or not (I’m not particularly fond of it), calling someone an illegal immigrant isn’t a commentary on the person. It’s a commentary on his/her status or role.

If we take the AP’s line of reasoning and apply it similarly elsewhere, it becomes increasingly clear that the editors at The Associated Press either 1) don’t understand how adjectives work or 2) are more concerned about perception than how the language works.

I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter.

I know this sounds harsh. But before you write me off as someone with an anti-immigrant agenda, let me state for the record that I’m in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. I think it’s absurd that we deport law-abiding individuals who work hard, get good grades in school and contribute a lot to our society.

I’m also in favor of using terms of respect when referring to any individual or group, and deferring to their preference for self-identification. Many people consider the term “illegal immigrant” problematic or even offensive, so if the AP is changing its style based on that perception, there’s an argument to be made for that. Just don’t try to make that argument on linguistic grounds, because it doesn’t fly.

There are two types of adjectives: The first is a more-or-less permanent description of a person. An Irish-American, for instance, isn’t going to become a Chinese-American. If you’re gay, you’re gay. If you’re tall, you’re going to stay that way. If you’re blond, you’ll keep on being blond until you go gray, lose your hair or decide to color it.

The second describes a temporary situation with regard to a role or status, and the term “illegal immigrant” falls into this second category. It in no way implies that a person is illegal. What it does do is indicate that his or her status is illegal.

To illustrate how this works, all that needs to be done is look at some parallel examples. In American League baseball, for example, a designated hitter is “designated” (chosen by the manager to bat in place of another player — typically the pitcher) in his role as a hitter. No one would call him a “designated person,” because it’s clear that the designation refers to his role or status as a hitter, not his identity as a human being.

Now let’s look at another, less flattering, term: drunken driver. Again, the adjective “drunken” refers to the person’s role driving a car, not his identity as a person. No one is suggesting a drunken driver is an alcoholic; this may or may not be the case. It’s only referring to the person’s status as a driver.

A 17-year-old who votes in a U.S. election is an unlawful participant. That’s not the same thing as saying the person is lawless. It’s saying his or her participation is unlawful.

One problem with banning the use of adjectives is that we often aren’t left with an alternative. “Undocumented” would seem a reasonable alternative for those who consider the word “illegal” inappropriate. It very clearly refers to the person’s status, and there’s no danger of construing it as a permanent “identity”: As soon as a person acquires the documents in question, it no longer applies. But the AP has steered clear even of that, arguing that it’s unclear what documents are in question.

I’d argue it’s perfectly clear that the documents refer to the person’s immigration status, not a divorce decree or a coupon for a latte at Starbucks.

What’s just as bad is that the AP hasn’t suggested an alternative to the terms it has banned, so we’re left with no acceptable adjective (that I’m aware of) to use in this situation.

AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, suggests the use of phrases such as “people who entered the country illegally” or “someone living in the country on an expired visa” as more precise alternatives.

Under that rationale, however, we should stop using the phrase “drunken driver” and instead always refer to “an individual whose blood alcohol test was above the 0.08 legal limit.” More precise, sure. But try writing that several times in the same story. Readers will get tired of it pretty quickly.

What this comes down to is that the AP is doing the right thing — respecting people’s right of self-identification — for the wrong reason.

There’s just no linguistic justification for it.

Steve Provost is a copy editor.

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