An etymological doubt has hit me. To my surprise, the "writing enhancement software," Grammarly flagged the phrase "foreign students" and suggested "International students" in its place. The reasoning:

The Term foreign students may be considered outdated, disrespectful, or offensive. Consider changing the word or phrase.

Honestly, I am swaying a bit. My concern is about word choice, usage, and of course, etymology. The fact that Grammarly is suggesting such a switch should not be taken lightly. This type of software is gradually assuming the role of a practical dictionary/thesaurus and may help turn the language in a particular direction (or not). Look at the questions about what grammar and spelling corrections in Word Perfect inflicted on a generation of writers. But what about the developers' ability to distinguish mutations in the language? They may show themselves correct in identifying a real change. Are they sniffing a shift I am not?

A quick look at Google shows that people are still using it interchangeably, but a Ngram graph shows a drastic drop for FS and a modest spike for IS since 1967, which might lend Grammarly some credibility.


1- Is the term "foreign students" genuinely becoming outdated and perhaps offensive or are these two terms ("International students") just moving closer? I am not interested in discussing conservative or liberal ideologies behind the software's suggestion. Instead, I would appreciate your sense of the direction where the English language is moving (words’ development). It is not difficult to see how in a time of worldwide anti-immigration waves the word "foreign" might be taken as a word of choice to insult newcomers. But would it affect the way we refer to non-citizen students? To recap, do you feel the term "foreign students" is becoming old-fashioned or might allude to contempt, even if slightly?

2- Should (or could) the term "International students" supersede or replace "foreign students"? Despite that most writers still use the terms interchangeably, there seem to be subtle differences. The site WERN surmises that the organization OECD has defined the terms in this way:

a. IS refers to people who have crossed borders specifically to study outside of their home country.

b. FS indicates an individual who happens to reside in a foreign country and has decided to enroll in an institution there.

My take on the OECD's attempts to define the terms is that they have proposed not one, but various ideas, and not all of them consistent (see here and here). I find notable, nevertheless, that none show the term "foreign students" passing into oblivion or becoming offensive.

The context of the piece that I am currently writing feels to me as if requiring "foreign students" rather than "international students." I intend to highlight the foreignness of a group of students visiting the Dominican Republic, where I could hardly imagine this term conveying the same potentially offensive meaning as if the US, for example. But I would consider other views.

To clarify:

The concerns here are not if someone is foreign or international. They are instead about if (1) one of the terms is becoming outdated and/or offensive, and if (2) the attempts at defining them are accurate enough or unproblematic.

A previous thread (“International” vs “Foreign” [closed]) offered some insights but did not answer the questions.

I don't mean to advertise a product here.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Mar 9, 2018 at 14:02

5 Answers 5


The primary definitions of the word "foreign" in the American Heritage Dictionary and the New Oxford American Dictionary are definitively neutral, yes.

International: AHD:

Located away from one's native country.

Of, characteristic of, or from a place or country other than the one being considered.


Of, from, in, or characteristic of a country or language other than one's own.

But their secondary definitions bring associations or connotations that many persons might not wish associated themselves.

Foreign: AHD:

Situated in an abnormal or improper place in the body and typically introduced from outside.

Not natural; alien.

Not germane; irrelevant.


Strange and unfamiliar.

  • As implied in my question and mentioned in the conversations that were moved somewhere else, we were aware of the dictionary definitions. As I implied, I suppose you are trying to say that the secondary definitions may have something to do with the negative trend. What would you say about the two-part question? "If (1) one of the terms is becoming outdated and/or offensive, and if (2) the attempts at defining them are accurate enough or unproblematic." Mar 30, 2018 at 1:49
  • It sounds then like you're asking me to project my opinions or predict the future, which I think are beyond the scope of Stack Exchange.
    – 2540625
    Mar 30, 2018 at 4:58
  • I am not seeking an opinion-based answer. Simply rephrased: 1) Are the Grammarly developers correct in assuming that the term "foreign" is becoming outdated or offensive? 2) Is the term "International Student" a better fit? I am not convinced either way. But I suspect you imply a positive answer to both. Right? Mar 30, 2018 at 22:31
  • Universities would be the most likely place for foreign/international students, and universities sway to neo-liberal politics, thus those who are most likely to use the phrase would most likely choose the newer, "safer" word.
    – 2540625
    Mar 31, 2018 at 0:59

Foreign can have a connotation of strange or out of place. Think of a foreign object in terms of something that doesn't belong where you found it ("he choked on a foreign object").

It's similar to how "illegal alien" has an offensive connotation ("it's not a human, it's an alien!") whereas "illegal immigrant" is a more neutral description.


(1) The trend towards more frequent use of ‘international students’ is driven by bureaucratic usage. Most universities in the English-speaking countries have some kind of an office with several full-time employees that caters to such students, and such offices have been becoming larger and more influential over the recent decades (together with other university offices devoted to ‘student life’, as distinct from actual instruction). The people who work in these offices now see it as a part of their professional identity to always use the term ‘international students’ instead of ‘foreign students’, and to insist that such terminology be followed in all official university communications. Most ordinary people only rarely need to use either term; when such an occasion arises, they may nowadays choose to use ‘international students’ because they remember having seen it on their university’s website. The increase in the use of ‘international students’ thus probably hasn’t arisen through spontaneous developments in the everyday use of the language.

(2) Software of the kind referred to in the question is probably not used by those who genuinely care about their style of writing and the more subtle nuances of meaning. On the other hand, it is likely used by the people to whom such matters are not important in themselves, but whose jobs require them to quickly churn out memoranda that will look O.K. in the eyes of their employers. It is thus understandable that such software will be biased towards bureaucratic usage.

(3) Given that the word ‘foreign’ simply means from another country, it is unclear why anybody who actually is from another country would be offended by being so described, unless there is something about the context that makes it offensive. One can imagine a context in which the word is used to suggest that the person is an outsider who doesn’t really belong here, and that would, of course, be offensive, but in such cases it is not the word itself that is offensive but the combination of the word and the context. And in such a context, the word ‘international’ would probably be offensive too.

(4) As has already been pointed out in the comments, the words ‘foreign’ and ‘international’ are not interchangeable. The term ‘foreign student’ conveys the idea that one’s domicile is in another country; the term ‘international student’ conveys the idea that one’s studies are a part of interaction (exchange, cooperation) between the two nations. It is true that when one label is applicable, the other one is usually applicable as well, but they still direct attention to different aspects of the person. Many people choose to study in another country because of the quality of its schools, and of how that quality contributes to their individual self-improvement; they do not care that their doing so may also be regarded (by somebody else) as a part of some grand scheme of cooperation between the two nations. Insisting on the label ‘international students’ may be casting them into a role that they do not particularly identify with.

  • Thanks for your sensible answer, which I find it summarized in your first paragraph. I take you are saying that there is indeed a shift but that is guided by university-bureaucratic interests. In my mind, it is not unreasonable, but my skeptic side would have appreciated a few sources as evidence. On your second paragraph, I disagree. People who use this type of software cannot be reduced in the way you just did. Keep in mind that not-native-speakers rely on them to catch problems that you may find it easier to notice. Mar 3, 2018 at 1:22
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    Your point (3) rather misses the point that words, in and of themselves, carry connotations as well as denotations. In the case of foreign, actual dictionary definitions include "alien in character : not connected or pertinent" (M-W #4) and ["Strange and unfamiliar"](ODO #2). Given those secondary definitions, and associations like "foreign objects" (which you really don't want in your eye or food), it's not surprising that the word carries some negative baggage when applied to people.
    – 1006a
    Mar 6, 2018 at 17:06
  • Sorry but that is nt at all driven by "beurocratic" usage. It might be driven by general ignorance and do you really not see the difference? Mar 9, 2018 at 1:00
  • Dictionary definitions include the senses cited by 1006a, but they also include other senses, which carry no such implications. The context usually makes it clear which of the different senses is intended.
    – jsw29
    Mar 10, 2018 at 18:30
  • @jsw29 : Both, 1006a and Robbie Goodwin (*), are convincing. Though not complete (for the reasons explained above), I think your answer is still useful. Thanks. Mar 30, 2018 at 1:44

The use of foreign would indicate a relationship relative to a host. Whereas international is a more objective descriptor.


The discussion really is interesting, I appreciate all notes mentioned which undoubtedly opens the minds for critical thinking about words and the meaning change. My point of view is that meaning is encapsulated in a context which means even in the case of using the word international will not make it safe in case of a context on which the attitude among people is directed negatively toward this word or else. Accordingly. as I mentioned people and context decide the acceptibility and meaning, what is regected in one society might be totally accepted in another.

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