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A Word, Please: Either way is OK with her

September 18, 2011|By June Casagrande

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.

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