Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » How much do 2 words matter to the illegal immigration debate?


The so-called vocabulary wars struck newspapers this week with the announcement by the Associated Press that it would no longer use the term "illegal immigrant."

This ruling reaches across the country and beyond because the AP Stylebook is considered the language bible followed by most news organizations, including the Victoria Advocate.

The AP explained it changed the policy to avoid labels: "The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally."

Unfortunately, these extra words don't help headline writers, who search for the fastest, most precise language available to convey clear understanding to the most possible readers. What two words fit in the place of "illegal immigrant" in a headline now?

Critics accuse the AP of playing politics with the style ruling. In a Fox News report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she didn't get caught up in the vocabulary wars. “They are immigrants who are here illegally. That’s an illegal immigrant,” she said.

At the Victoria Advocate, we have no exceptions to the AP Stylebook and don't intend to start now. We recognize the power of language, of course, and plan to watch carefully as word usage evolves. (Full disclosure: I serve on the national board of the Associated Press Media Editors.)

We certainly agree with this sentiment expressed by AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll in announcing the change: "Change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses. Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere."