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A lack of style

The Associated Press bends the language of debate

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In politics, language controls the debate. Overturning centuries-old definitions of traditional marriage becomes "marriage equality" and banning guns becomes "gun safety." Distorting the language is intended to persuade the public to accept radical change as something ordinary and natural.

Illegal immigration and amnesty advocacy groups hailed the decision by the linguistic gatekeepers at The Associated Press to banish the phrases "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" from the lexicon.

All dispatch writers must henceforth engage in verbal gymnastics that might have been inspired by a George Orwell satire to avoid using the forbidden terminology. The AP insists that individuals should not be labeled, only their behavior. "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," decrees the newly revised AP Stylebook. Kathleen Carroll, a vice president of the news co-operative, elaborated in a blog post that an "action" would include "living in or immigrating to a country illegally."

The AP style is, of course, only a suggestion. Newspapers are free to make AP dispatches conform to their own higher standards. But copy editors abiding by the edict face a daunting task of trying to fit "living in or immigrating to a country illegally" into a one-column headline. The forbidden terms "illegal" and "alien" are concise, precise and familiar. The AP is splitting hairs, as the deed and the doer are inseparable in the case of someone who hopped a fence to enter the country without permission. The latest change is as ridiculous as trying to create a distinction between a shoplifter and someone performing the "action" of shoplifting.

For years, activists have been badgering news outlets and politicians into adopting the phrase "undocumented worker" anything to avoid the fact that illegal aliens are, in fact, breaking the law. Mentioning illegality, activists insist, is offensive and racist. They argue that human beings "can't be illegal"; they object to "alien" as dehumanizing. Suggested alternative phrases include "undocumented (or unauthorized) migrants," "economic refugees" or even "would-be Americans."

On the bright side, the Associated Press continues to shun the term "undocumented" on the grounds that it is not precise. "A person may have plenty of documents ... just not the ones required for legal residency," explains Darrell Christian, one of the three editors of the AP Stylebook, speaking to the annual convention of the American Copy Editors Society.

The style change has been controversial and the reaction "all over the map," Mr. Christian told the gathering last week in St. Louis, noting that critics "accused us of being co-opted by interest groups." He said some of those groups want the word "illegal" banned outright. "We didn't do that." (Maybe next year.) The reaction has been "vociferous" on both sides.

Perhaps the AP could follow the suggestion of late-night comic Jay Leno. "In a groundbreaking move," he joked, "the Associated Press will no longer use the term 'illegal immigrant.' That's out. They'll now use the phrase 'undocumented Democrat.' "

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