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Sometimes people are referring to mechanical objects as "she":

I love my car. She always gets the best service.

Are there any rules when it is appropriate to use "she" instead of it, and is "he" ever used in such context?

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One case that kinda stands out to me is when a Wikipedia article refers to any kind of ship as "she". Oh well, I guess that's the established custom. –  Jonik Sep 17 '10 at 19:56
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Many times people tend to humanize things they love. Pets - or a car mechanic would speak of a nice car as a she, as a musician would call his instrument a she. I never though heard a female musician call her instrument a he. –  malach Sep 20 '10 at 13:43
    
@Jonik: not only wikipedia articles do that. I think it's well established, at least in US navy, that ships are "shes". –  Claudiu Oct 13 '10 at 14:20
    
Sure, that's what I meant. (That still looks a bit odd to me.) –  Jonik Oct 13 '10 at 14:59
    
Hurricanes used to get only female names, too. This apparently was started by naval meteorologists. –  Peter Shor May 23 '11 at 21:52
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4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_gender#Animate_and_inanimate :

The pronoun "she" is sometimes used to refer to things which can contain people such as countries, ships, or vehicles, or when referring to certain other machines. This, however, is considered a stylistically marked, optional figure of speech. This usage is furthermore in decline and advised against by most journalistic style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style.[9] If used, the terms she, her, and hers are always used, regardless of the entity's name - for example, "The U.S.S. John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) was laid down October 22, 1964. She was launched on April 1, 1967..."

"He" in reference to an inanimate object has not, as far as I'm aware, ever been common usage in English.

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Interesting, never thought about containing people criteria. –  serg Sep 18 '10 at 1:45
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Ships used to have (still do?) female names. I'm not sure if it is related to this usage of "she". –  b.roth Jan 18 '11 at 17:33
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Gender is also used in English to refer to certain abstract ideas or institutions. For example, 'The Church always protects her own', or 'Justice unleashed her judgement'.

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The practice of referring to inanimate objects as "she" tends to concentrate in areas historically dominated by males (navies, military, locker-rooms, car-repair shops, etc.)

Objects referred to as "she" by those groups tend to have the following characteristics:

  • the men's lives depend on the object (i.e. if the ship sinks, they drown)
  • the object tends to be put into harm's way
  • the object is not fully understood and/or not fully under their control and therefore can be characterized as "fickle" by its users

As the objects are seen as both required for survival and likely to kill them, males tend to supersticiously think of the object as feminine. This allows them the hope that the object might be subject to cajoling and/or flattery as a means of increasing their odds of survival.

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It's a bit broader than this, and seems to be tied to things that you mention, but also to (mother) nature, fate, etc, probably going back to the Greeks. –  Wayne May 23 '11 at 18:58
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-1 for what sounds like pure speculation. Most of the "she" style labels I hear are half terms of endearment and half self mockery. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if a man referred to a vacuum cleaner as "she" even though there is no life-threatening situation or potential harm. Likewise, objects with the label "she" are not necessarily unknown to the men involved. One aspect of the trope exemplifies the exact opposite: The man knows the object intimately and in ways no other man could. If you can find a reference, please edit it in and I will retract the downvote. –  MrHen May 23 '11 at 19:03
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Of course mine is pure speculation. If you want references, you'll probably be happier in a less crowd-sourced medium. You're welcome to keep the downvote if you so desire. Your own speculation is as worthwhile and welcome as mine. I only relate my own experiences in the matter. Your observation that the objects a not necessarily unknown is valid, hence my frequent use of the weasel-word 'tends'. I agree with your observation about the vacuum cleaner, although I would tend to think in that case the use of "she" would tend to lean toward the pejorative. –  JS. May 23 '11 at 23:15
    
I'd suspect rather the opposite of JS. Men refer to something as "she" as a term of endearment: they call a ship or a car "she" to personalize it because they value it highly. Okay, I'm just speculating too, but speculating wildly is so much easier than doing research. –  Jay Aug 21 '12 at 20:27
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Note: This turned into more of an opinion piece than I originally intended. Your mileage may vary and I have nothing to help back any of this up.

Regarding the usage of "he" in place of "she", this is possible as a backlash against the typical "she" usage:

(by a woman) I love my car. He always gets the best service.

This isn't really "common", per se, and really only serves as a Take That against men's use of an inanimate she.

Another borderline exception is the Judeo-Christian God:

God is great. He loves us very much.

The non-gender aspect of God is a much heated topic and the non-existence of a gender neutral pronoun forces people to choose male or female. Another backlash occurs when authors purposefully swap it:

God is great. She loves us very much.

This also serves as a Take That but more directly targets the male dominated leadership of the modern church. That being said, this doesn't quite satisfy your query since God is typically seen as animate and personal. "It" wouldn't really feel right.

The only place you will traditionally invoke an inanimate he is when you are referring to a specific entity and wish to anthropomorphize it with typical male emotions and traits. Note the difference in style:

A tornado is coming! It will destroy us all!

A tornado is coming! She will destroy us all!

A tornado is coming! He will destroy us all!

Tornado may not be the best example, but each of these will bring slightly different connotations to mind. "It" is an abstracted, non-personal usage that attaches no emotion to the act of destruction. "She" would attach emotion and the range would include those of a mother, lover, seductress, fate, siren, dream, etc. "He" would more accurately invoke those of a competitor, warrior, challenger, father, master, protector, etc. While each range across all potential emotions, the source and reasonings will differ.

Take, for example, the subject of revenge. Examples motivations of traditional feminine revenge include unrequited love, payback for broken physical vanity, a betrayal of a son, jealousy, or gossip. Masculine revenge is more relevant for slavery, theft, murder, physical assault, or disrespect. Do note that these are gross generalizations and some great stories involve the exact opposites of these — for instance, a man vowing revenge on the one who scarred him. I only list them here to point toward why one would use "he" instead of "she".

Namely, the use of "he" would be apt whenever you would obviously turn an object into a specifically male entity if it actually had a gender. For instance: Moby Dick, as a car, would still be male. If you represent a car as an analogy for Moby Dick, it would be apt to use "he". You wouldn't have to but you could pull it off.

To come back to the male tornado: He may feel larger, slower, more angry and much more likely to sit around and individually smash - every - single - house by tossing them one by one into a nearby mountain.

Or not. All of this is entirely subjective, which is entirely the point.

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-1 for what sounds like pure speculation. Most of the "she" style labels I hear are half terms of endearment and half self mockery. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if a man referred to a vacuum cleaner as "she" even though there is no life-threatening situation or potential harm. Likewise, objects with the label "she" are not necessarily unknown to the men involved. One aspect of the trope exemplifies the exact opposite: The man knows the object intimately and in ways no other man could. If you can find a reference, please edit it in and I will retract the downvote –  FumbleFingers May 23 '11 at 20:22
    
Cute. –  MrHen May 23 '11 at 20:27
    
Couldn't resist! But at least you did point out that yours was entirely subjective, so now I've had my little joke I'll reverse the downvote...... EEEK! Too late! I'm sure your rep can stand it though! –  FumbleFingers May 23 '11 at 20:49
    
I think God is in an entirely different category. God is not an inanimate object. While Jews and Christians do not believe that God is male in the sense of having male sex organs, one could speculate that he might refer to himself with male pronouns because his personality is masculine in some sense. Or maybe it was just that "it" was inappropriate as he has a personality and so he had to make an arbitrary choice between "he" and "she" and he might just as well have used "she". (If you don't believe the Bible is inspired by God, substitute "the Bible writers called God ..." (continued) –  Jay Aug 21 '12 at 20:22
    
... for "God called himself" etc. –  Jay Aug 21 '12 at 20:22
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