25 November 2011

Personal pronouns for ships

This is a vexed and vexing issue. Most online style and grammar guides are for journalists and others writing for broad lay audiences, not naval personnel.

The conventional advice is summarised on The Grammarphobia Blog as follows:
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), as well as the style books of the Associated Press and the New York Times, recommend using 'it' or 'its' to refer to ships.
In 2002, Lloyd’s List, the 276-year-old London-based shipping newspaper, officially dropped the gender personification and now refers to ships with the pronouns 'it' and 'its' instead of 'she' and 'her'.
Under its entry for 'she', the Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage this way: “Used (instead of it) of things to which female sex is conventionally attributed,” such as “a ship or boat.”
Further on, we read:
Perhaps the grammarian Otto Jespersen came closest to an explanation in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933).
Jespersen wrote that some inanimate things may be personified “to show a certain kind of sympathy with or affection for the thing, which is thereby, as it were, raised above the inanimate sphere.”
 “In such cases,” he adds, “the speaker does not really attribute sex to the thing in question, and the choice of a sexual pronoun is occasioned only by the fact that there is no non-sexual pronoun available except  the inert it.”
So sometimes we may feel that 'it' is simply too lifeless and inadequate — or, as Jespersen says, 'inert'.

But this blog is for translators who write specifically for English-mother-tongue naval personnel. I believe that most readers of this type use feminine personal pronouns when referring to any ship they are personally familiar with. (Q: Is this true of the latest generation of female naval officers? R: Unfortunately, I don’t know.)

Aside: Here's a link to the transcript of an excellent Lingua Franca programme entitled She's Apples... on feminine personal pronouns in everyday Australian speech. The speaker, Andrew Pawley, Professor of Linguistics at the Australian National University, says "... the rules are roughly that you use animate pronouns for inanimates — that is, 'she' or 'he' instead of 'it' — when you want your speech to be lively and animated."
How representative this is of English internationally and how applicable to technical journalism remain, of course, open questions.

My advice:
In quoted speech (in translation and technical writing for navies, shipbuilders and the like), use feminine personal pronouns to refer to a particular vessel previously designated by name.
In other contexts, seriously consider the benefits of female personal pronouns (to refer to a particular vessel previously designated by name) as a means
Do not use these pronouns for a type, category, or class of ship.

Comments welcome. If you happen to know an English-mother-tongue women naval officer, I would very much like to know what she thinks.

1 comment:

  1. I'll ask the next female naval officer I meet (seriously, I know a couple)! But your audience may not be specifically "English mother tongue" - how do officers in the Royal Saudi Navy see this? Do they have unveiling ceremonies at Pakistani shipyards?

    The U.S. Navy Style Guide (undated) recommends "she" http://www.navy.mil/tools/styleguide_print

    But The Guardian Style Book (2007) says: "ship: not feminine: it ran aground, not she ran aground"


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