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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Politically Correct Doesn't Always Work

Though I talk about the niceties of being poetically correct in the 2nd edition of The Frugal Editor (to be issued first for Kindle in mid-January), there are times when we carry it too far--sometimes to the weakening of the English language.  What will we use to replace the word foreigner, as an example.  Read on!

We writers need to be aware of PC trends so we can make conscious choices and avoid faux pas whenever possible. And there are lots of PC-isms we out there we need to know. But frankly, I think getting too PC (politically correct) can interfere with clear, concise English.


Here's an example of  what I consider just too, too PC: An academic at one of the universities that uses my husband's reference book, What Foreigners Need to Know About America From A to Z ( objected to the word "Foreigners" in the title. My husband was aware of that difficulty when he chose that title. Some consider it pejorative. The thing is, there is not really a perfect substitute in the English language. "Aliens" calls up an image quite different (Martians, anyone?) than "Foreigners." These academics who used to call their students from other countries "foreign students" now call them "international students," but that term wasn't quite right for this book. Some people this book is written for may be emigrants. Second-generation citizens. Tourists. People who aren't Americans who conduct business with Americans both in the US and in their own countries. And on and on. Though not a perfect term, "foreigners" was the most inclusive word he could find.


Often attitudes about words tell more about the person who objects to them. When did it get to be a bad thing to be a "foreigner?" In America, even Native Americans were once from somewhere else. Or, more importantly, when are we going to get over the idea that being a foreigner is a bad thing.


Now the LA Times reports that the respected AP (Associated Press) has decided to discourage its reporters and editors from using the word "illegal immigrant." Some find the term offensive. The Times reports, "They prefer 'undocumented' arguing that 'illegal' is dehumanizing and lumps border crossers with serious criminals."


The venerable AP stylebook warns against the term, though they, too, couldn't find a suitable substitute for all cases. Instead they suggest a kind of "working around it" approach—which may be an adequate alternative in the body of a written piece but may be tough when coming up with a title or headline.


There are all kinds of phrases and words that we should be leery of. We know—instinctively or because we writers need to keep up on such things—most of them. But sometimes the style suggestions are just plain mealy mouthed. Meaning that they are diluting our language without offering anything that works as well.

Decisions. Decisions. Just remember. "Undocumented" isn't going to work. Some people have documents, just not the right ones.

But the part of all this—the part that I love—is the idea a senior manager at Associated Press put forth: "It's lazy to label people. It's better to describe them."

I have to agree with that. I was labeled all my life and hate putting labels on people. It's a little like putting them in a box, locking it, and throwing away the key.


Just so you know, LA Times and The New York Times will soon be weighing in on the "illegal" and "undocumented" issue. Can't wait to see what they come up with.


Note: In the 1970s, the LA Times style book preferred "illegal alien." Times do change…gradually. Thank goodness, mostly for the better. I'm going to accumulate style choices, possibly for a new book. If you have ideas for me, please let me know at

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at , where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at . Please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:


Nikki said...

Trust me - you don't want me to share ALL my thoughts on being politically correct. But I totally agree that you can tell more about the person making the complaint, than on the actual words being used.

Seriously - if you look hard enough and want it bad enough - you can find something offensive about just about anything.

Guess I just prefer to be a glass half full kind of person and to embrace the differences instead of using them for negative purposes.

Will be interesting to see what else happens about "illegal" - but what other correct word do you use? If you are not legal - you are illegal. Otherwise, you have to change the facts.

I personally don't see an issue with foreigner - all of us had foreigners in our family at one point.

On my dad's side of the family, they came here from Germany in the early 1600s and were proud to make a new life in a new world - and we've been here for almost 400 years :)

Nancy Famolari said...

Good post, Carolyn. sometimes we forge about the English language in trying too hard to make a point.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

It seems to me that "good manners" and the Golden Rule should cover this. Having a few guidelines never hurt, but getting uppity over perfectly good, useful words seems to be going too far. Thanks for dropping by Nikki and Nancy.

Anne K Albert said...

While I "get" the reasons for being PC, I also agree with your fear the English language could suffer as a result. The wonderful thing about this language is it's ability to grasp and communicate an idea succinctly. If humans chose to water down their opinions, views and statements, that's their choice, but as writers we need to stay vigilant. Great post!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Anne, thanks for your comments. And if we writers aren't vigilant, how can we expect others to be. Both on the protect-the-language side of the fence and on the mold-positive-attitudes side of the fence. (-:

Karen Cioffi said...

I think PC has been taken to the extreme, which is never a good thing in any area. Great post, Carolyn.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I agree. It always seems to be the fringes that destroy something that could word for the betterment of all, Karen.

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