A Word, Please: Either way is OK with her

Not long ago, a reader named Danny spotted the following sentence in a Southern California newspaper article: “Born in South Wales, in 1850, Griffith immigrated to the United States as a penniless teenager.”

Danny wanted to know about “immigrated to.” Should it be “emigrated to?” he wondered.

The difference between “immigrate” and “emigrate” is a popular topic among language lovers. The most common take on this issue is that you “immigrate to” a place and “emigrate from” another place.

“One who leaves a country emigrates from it. One who comes into a country immigrates,” according to “The Associated Press Stylebook.”

“To immigrate is to enter a country to live, leaving a past home. To emigrate is to leave one country to live in another one.... Someone who moves from Ireland to the United States is an immigrant here, and an emigrant there,” notes the “The Chicago Manual of Style.”

Dictionaries often disagree with style guides on usage matters. But not on this one. “Webster's New World College Dictionary” says that to immigrate is “to come into a new country, region, or environment, esp. in order to settle there” and that to emigrate means “to leave one country or region to settle in another.”

“American Heritage” goes a step further by offering a usage note discussing the nuances of the two words: “Emigrate describes the move relative to the point of departure: 'After the Nazis came to power in Germany, many scientists emigrated' (that is, left Germany). By contrast, immigrate describes the move relative to the destination: 'The promise of prosperity in the United States encouraged many people to immigrate' (that is, move to the United States).”

So it’s clear why “immigrate” is usually used with “from” and why “emigrate” is usually used with “to.” But while that may be a good tool for understanding the difference, it’s not a good idea to put too much stake in it.

Immigrate is sometimes used with “from, “Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, adding: “Just as ‘emigrate to’ can be understood as ‘to leave there and come to,’ ‘immigrate from’ can be understood as ‘to come here from.’” As an example, the usage guide offers an example from the March 1973 Atlantic magazine: “Pettigrew comes from Richmond, Virginia, but his father immigrated from Scotland.”

But the most interesting note I came across, also from “Merriam Webster’s” usage guide, calls into question whether we should worry about these two words at all. “A large number of handbooks … warn us not to confuse them. Our evidence shows that almost no one does, at least in edited prose.… Distinguishing these words may be less of a problem than is often suggested, as your meaning is essentially the same no matter which you use.”

A better question, it seems to me, is how “migrate” fits into all this. According to the “American Heritage Dictionary,” migrate means “1. to move from one country or region and settle in another, 2. to change location periodically, especially by moving seasonally from one region to another.”

A broad reading suggests “migrate” could pinch hit for either “emigrate” or “immigrate.” But it does have a subtly different emphasis. “‘Migrate,’ which is used for people and animals, sometimes implies a lack of permanent settlement, “especially as a result of seasonal or periodic movement,” American Heritage notes.

“‘Emigrate’ and ‘immigrate’ are used only of people and imply a permanent move, generally across a political boundary.”

So to answer Danny’s question, the article got it right, which, it turns out, is pretty easy for any of us to do.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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