When Grammar and Geography Collide: Emigrant versus Immigrant

To emigrate is to exit a country; to immigrate is to come into a country. Emigrants exit; immigrants come in. E-E-I-I. How often have you heard or read this memory trick? It’s repeated without thought, like a burp after a sip of soda: involuntary and expected.

The emigrant/immigrant pair came up in the final assignment of an English grammar and usage course I took last year. The sentence went something like this.

An Australian (emigrant/immigrant), Sally Assaf, established the American Bark Institute in 2013.*

Most students chose immigrant and were awarded a point. E-E-I-I, right? Well, I chose emigrant. I knew immigrant was correct, but this correctness didn’t necessarily make emigrant incorrect. I was ready to argue my case. So was another emigrant-choosing student, who, in an online discussion thread, asked about Sally Assaf.

Students repeated the E-E-I-I mantra. Definitions of the verbs emigrate and immigrate were presented as evidence of the correct use of the nouns emigrant and immigrant. Migration was imagined in a straight line, as an exit followed by an entry, as a sequence of steps from emigration to immigration, from emigrant to immigrant (not necessarily in an administrative or legal sense, but in a linguistic-spatial one). Wasn’t all of this evident? After all, the proof was in the prepositions: emigrate from, immigrate to. Students argued that once Sally Assaf had entered the United States, she ceased being an emigrant and became an immigrant. Had Sally Assaf returned to Australia, we could call her an emigrant.

I understood what they were saying. E-E-I-I. I had read it all over the Internet: even Daily Writing Tips and Grammar Girl reinforce this geographical imagination and language use.

A photograph of the Lausanne Savabelin Tower, an all-wooden structure. In the lower right corner stands a woman in red clothes. The sky is white, though we barely see it.

The spiral staircase in the all-wooden Lausanne Sauvabelin Tower. Photographed by Kosala Bandara (https://flic.kr/p/jVoiAQ).

But why do we slip from verbs and actions to nouns and conditions, thereby confining immigrant and emigrant to mutually exclusive places? The act of migration taken, Sally Assaf is both emigrant and immigrant. In our assignment question, Assaf didn’t actually migrate or move in space; she was simply described as an Australian who had founded an institute in the United States. So why would Sally Assaf rightly be an Australian who had come to the United States and wrongly be an Australian who had left Australia?

* I preserved the sentence structure but changed the where, who, and what.

4 thoughts on “When Grammar and Geography Collide: Emigrant versus Immigrant

  1. I didn’t know the EEII thingy and I’m teaching my Population Geography class on Thursday about migration. So…good to know!

    What was the outcome of the battle for eternal immigrant/emigrant status in the grammar class?

    • I lost that battle. One other student and I argued that a person could be both immigrant and emigrant, but, alas, no one agreed. We were told over and over again that a migrant, once in a new country of residence, could only be an immigrant. A year later, I still can’t accept this mutually exclusive logic. What do you think, Jeff?

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