I'm writing a Science Fiction novel and describing a space ship. Sea Ships are usually feminine, while space ships don't seem to be either feminine or neutral.

Would you stick to one? Or would you switch depending on whether the ship is addressed by name or just as a ship?

Herbert could see The Invincible, and she was truly a beauty. [...] As Herbert walked through the ship, he couldn't help but notice that the people on this ship were loyal to it and its captain. ("her and her captain"?)

Edit: To clarify the role of the ship, it's comparable to the Battlestar Galactica. It's an inanimate vessel (so unlike the minds of Culture ships) but it's a unique ship, one with a long history and even more stories, and its crew truly loves it.


4 Answers 4


Ask yourself what the traditions of your space navy are. Does its culture trace roots back to a wet navy? What was the pronoun tradition of that navy (the Russian navy uses "he", for instance)? Were there sociopolitical reasons that the tradition would be challenged or altered along the way? Does the captain get to choose the ship's gender? Do the crew argue about it?

It's very human to anthropomorphize one's favorite machines, so use of some gendered pronoun does seem likely.


The way a character thinks of a ship tells a lot about the relationship between the character and the ship. For example:

  • Someone who thinks of the ship as an inanimate tool will naturally tend to refer to it as an "it"
  • Thinking of a ship as a "she" implies a more sentimental approach, pretending that the ship is an individual, maybe even actually considering it to be a full person. This is common because it's been common for sailors to ascribe personality, desires, and a sort of free will to the ship.
  • But your own setting could have its own customs and idiosyncrasies! Maybe in your world, ships are individuals with personalities, but they're bizarre and otherworldly, so people think of them as individuals but not female (or male), and use "it".

Generally speaking, that's where variation in reference comes from - different ways of thinking of ships. Either form of reference you choose should be fine and unobtrusive, as long as you use it consistently (throughout the book, or per character). If they relation between people and ships isn't interesting or important to you, just choose one and go with that. If it is, then figure out what best suits your world and your characters. Either way, recall that the choice of how to refer to the ship is individual - different characters can refer to the ship differently; but a single character will generally stick to the same reference method at all times.

Regarding the last option you suggested, I would advise you to avoid alternating the reference between usages of the name and plain old "ship". This is not common or proper - and you'll notice it precisely undermines my central point here, which is that the way people feel about the ship as an "individual" affects the way they refer to it. Since their feelings for the ship - their awareness of it - stays consistent, the way that they refer to it will stay consistent as well.

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    I've read this three times and I am still not sure what your point is. If you think Herbert could say "it and its captain", because it's only a transportation tool for him and the captain says "isn't she beautiful", because it is his loved ship, then say that, Standback (I hope you have as much problems with this long-winded sentence as I had with your post ;) Besides that, why shouldn't Herbert's "relationship" to the ship change? He can refer to "it" at the beginning and change to "she" at the end after "falling in love" with her. Nov 3, 2011 at 9:21
  • @JohnSmithers: My point is the first sentence; everything else is just detail :P Yes, I think Herbert and the captain could say the lines you suggest. It's also perfectly possible for the relationship with a ship to change if the character does; reference should still remain consistent as long as the character is. Come, now, are you complaining that (A) my response was too long winded and (B) that I didn't cover a particular case you found interesting? :P
    – Standback
    Nov 3, 2011 at 9:29
  • I always complain that responses are long-winded. I hate long-winded stuff. And making your point by providing an example (like I suggested) helps to get rid of all that long-winding. And now I have to add some totally irrelevant nonsense to my rant, so it gets longer, just to emphasize my point. Down with long-windity! Long live succinctness! Ha, that's a good start in the morning :) Nov 3, 2011 at 9:44
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    "Brevity is the Soul of Wit: A Treatise in Five Volumes"
    – Standback
    Nov 3, 2011 at 10:51
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    No, seriously: That's a good point - examples get things across much more clearly. I tend to be long-winded because, well, I think there's a lot of material to cover, and if examples were sufficiently clear, writers would know everything just from reading :P But they'd definitely improve this answer; I'll try to edit some in later.
    – Standback
    Nov 3, 2011 at 10:52

I'd definitely stick to one or the other. As to which one--your call, I'd say. Do you want the ships to be unique and admired (she) or uniform and taken for granted (it)?

  • It's an important "character", maybe comparable to the Battlestar Galactica. So you would stick to "she"? Nov 3, 2011 at 8:15
  • Yeah, I'd go with 'she' for that. I'm pretty sure they use 'she' for Galactica, don't they? Han Solo uses 'she' for the Millennium Falcon.
    – Kate S.
    Nov 3, 2011 at 11:08
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    Klingons refer to their ships as "he." Which makes sense given Klingon culture. Nov 3, 2011 at 12:05
  • I don't see the connection between Klingon culture and the gender of a ship. Human cultures that traditionally refer to ships as "she" have historically had male-dominated navies as well; in fact, it's possibly the very lack of women that influences the choice of pronoun. Nov 3, 2011 at 18:05
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    TOS Klingons were (like most of the villains) fairly cardboard. They valued fighting and their own sense of "honor" above all else. In the Classic Trek series, there were no women in the Klingon military. Calling a ship "she" would have meant the "female" vessel which fought so valiantly and died so bravely with the crew was as good as the male warriors (shock, horror). This changed as early as the TOS movies, but was more explicit on DS9 when "the daughter of so-and-so" was being trained in the Dominion War. [/geek] Nov 4, 2011 at 0:05

I would remove the captain entirely from that sentence. You are talking the ship and the confusion in the sentence comes from injecting the captain into the thought cold. It has the potential to provoke the reader to think about how the captain, whom we have not emotionally associated to the ship yet, is reflected in what Herbert was observing. It can break the reader out of the reality you are trying to create.

Herbert could see The Invincible, and she was truly a beauty. [...] As Herbert walked through the ship, he couldn't help but notice that the people on this ship were loyal to her.

You have already been referring to the ship in the feminine so changing midstream can confuse the reader. Since the ship is a she what is the "it" the author is referring to.

  • Good thought. The "it" comes from "the ship" earlier in the sentence, but making the connection between "The Invincible" and "the ship" is the kicker. Nov 3, 2011 at 19:46

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