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I read the following claim concerning pronouns referring to inanimate objects:

Anything that is meant to contain you, protect you or provide you with something beneficial is [often referred to as] a she; anything that is a perceived threat is a he. That's why cars, boats and some countries are she.

  • Is this really the case, or is it just a subjective claim? (According to the Chicago Manual of Style using he/she for inanimate objects is not recommended and it should be used instead.)
  • Is there a 'rule' for determining whether to use he, she or it based on the impression one would like to express? (I only know the 'rule' for animals: In the case where you know their gender and they are important to you, you refer to them using he/she. E.g. A dog attacked me in the street. It bit me. versus This is my dog Roger. He is 7 years old.)
  • Have these practices changed over time?

Note 1: There is already a similar question (Referring to objects as "she"), but that considers only the feminine case and none of the answers offers an objective discussion of the matter.

Note 2: My native language is Czech, where the gender of the pronoun is based only on the grammatical gender of the noun. E.g. a cat (kočka) is always she, a dog (pes) is always he, a boat (loď) is always she and a car (auto) is always it.

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    Hello, Augustin. Nice question. May I ask: Do you encounter this problem in Czech – synonyms may have different genders in say French. For example, 'a bicycle' can be either 'un vélo' or 'une bicyclette'. So "What's the problem? Is it broken?" (with obvious referent but no antecedent like 'bicyclette') can logically take either the masculine or feminine pronoun. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '15 at 13:38
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    Yes, we do. Actually, we get the same problem with the word bicycle as well. Bicycle is either "kolo" (it) or "bicykl" (he). Therefore the same problem happens when referring to it: "Is it broken?" -- "Je pokažené?" (it) vs "Je pokažený?" (he). The situation can get even more bizarre with the Czech word for "wheelbarrow". It is either "kolečko" (it) or "táčky" (they, similarly to scissors or trousers). So you ask: "Is it broken?" -- "Je pokažené?" (it) or "Are they broken?" -- "Jsou pokažené?" (they). – Augustin Nov 17 '15 at 14:04
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    If you know the gender of a steam engine, it may as well as be he. Thomas the tank engine is he for sure as well as most of his friend engines - the carriages are she (Claire and Clarabel) :) – Honza Zidek Nov 18 '15 at 9:46
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  • The pronoun she is commonly used for motorcycles in the biker subculture. – Paulo Scardine Nov 23 '15 at 4:26
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+50

A few views from usage guides:

From Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994):

A few commentators take note of the conventional usage in which she and her are used to refer to certain things as if personified--nations, ships, mechanical devices, nature, and so forth. The origin of the practice is obscure. The OED has evidence from the 14th and 15th centuries... The conventions are still observed: [quotations from 1980s and 1970s sources referring to the four aforementioned categories]

The discussion goes on to note that some people object to the usage as sexist, but that it is not generally seen as a major issue compared to other problems of sexism in writing. The general recommendation is to err on the side of avoiding the usage.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) takes on the issue more directly:

Some purists object to the use of feminine personal pronouns to refer to inanimate things--boats, cars, nations, universities, Mother Nature, the wind and weather, and the like. Some of these uses are jocular; others are long-established conventions. In Formal language, all but the most conventional of such uses (the college as she reflects alma mater) are replaced by the neuter pronoun it, but at all Conversational levels and in Informal writing, most people find no problem with an inanimate referent for "She's a beauty!"

Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd ed., 2004) brings up masculine as well as feminine personification. It begins by noting the demise of the Old English distinctions between masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, concluding that eventually he and she came to mean only male/female persons or animals. However:

At the point of loss of grammatical gender, however, he began to be applied "illogically" to some things personified as masculine (mountains, rivers, oak-trees, etc. as the OED has it), and she to some things personified as feminine (ships, boats, carriages, utensils, etc.). For example, the OED cites examples of he used of the world (14c.), the philosopher's stone (14c.), a fire (15c.), an argument (15c.), the sun (16c.), etc.; and examples of she used of a ship (14c.), a door (14c.), a fire (16c.), a cannon (17c.), a kettle (19c.), and so on. At the present time such personification is comparatively rare, but examples can still be found....

This concludes with recent examples referring to countries and yachts.

In my personal experience, it seems like this usage is no longer common except in three contexts:

  1. She is occasionally used in formal and deliberately archaic oratorical references to abstract large entities, like countries, universities (and other abstract corporate bodies, like "the [Christian] Church"), weather/nature, etc. Many of these are traditionally associated with feminine gender and specifically mothers ("Mother country," alma mater, "Mother Church," "Mother Nature," etc.). She is also used for ships in this manner, but again the usage is old-fashioned. The only time I think I've ever heard he used was in a formal speech when referencing an element of nature after already making an allusion to a masculine Greek god associated with that element of nature -- in other words, a deliberate and explicit personification. People don't generally talk like that anymore, though, even in formal orations. I suppose we could include other personifications in English in this category, such as Death, who is often personified as a (masculine) "grim reaper" figure. It would thus be possible to say, "He [Death] comes for me," but this would generally be archaic usage today.

  2. She sometimes occurs as very casual and informal affectionate references to a personal possession, particularly yachts and cars (and occasionally other machines) owned by men. Other property that is given a name by its owner may be referred to using the gender of the name, but even when people name their stuff, they often still say it.

  3. It seems that some people have a tendency to casually assign gender to an animal of unknown or indeterminate sex and often just say he rather than it (which I think follows the pattern of the virus mentioned in another answer), particularly when ascribing agency or action to the animal. Again, this is mostly in informal speech situations and isn't technically referring to an "inanimate" object.

In general, I'd say to avoid these uses since they tend to be rare in contemporary English. Don't use (1) unless you want to sound very old-fashioned. And reserve (2) for if you're a man at a motor/boat club meeting admiring a car/boat and saying, "Gee, well, ain't she a real beaut'!"

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    +1 The only survey of reference-work discussions of the topic submitted so far, and a very solid answer overall. – Sven Yargs Nov 21 '15 at 21:57
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    This answer correctly focuses on personification as the key reason for this use of he/she. Personification happens through allegory for nations and concepts like liberty, through lifelike behavior in moving and mechanical devices, and through affection for pets, other animals and sometimes personal property. Only the last usage is still current (even if infrequent). – spirographer Nov 26 '15 at 1:47
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The only well-established custom in the US is to use "she" for boats that are large enough to be named. (Generally a canoe or small rowboat would be "it".)

Beyond that it's the habit of some men to use "she" for pieces of machinery (eg, a car or tractor) for which they have some fondness (or, occasionally, disdain).

And similarly, women occasionally use "he" (and often a male nickname) for pieces of machinery.

Dogs and cats are referred to by their presumed sex, with "it" used when the sex is unknown.

And, as others have observed here, (Mother) Nature is generally a "she", and the weather and sudden geological events (such as eruptions) are sometimes.

But this is an area where there is lots of personal variability. There are no "rules" (other than the strange looks you get at the yacht club if you call your yacht "he").

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    I remember Mark Williams on the TV programme 'Industrial Revelations 8. The Iron Horse' naughtily asking a railway heritage volunteer something like "Is the 'Duke of Gloucester' a he or a she?" (forcing the wacky answer he wanted) – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '15 at 14:31
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    @EdwinAshworth: And is the "Duke of Gloucester" engine he or she? I have not seen the program, I am curious. "Thomas the tank engine" is for sure he. – Honza Zidek Nov 18 '15 at 9:42
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    @Honza Zidek Beautiful counter-example! Why didn't I think of that – it should keep some psycholinguist busy for years. (Higher-level anthropomorphism, of course.) // It's been a long time, but I'll try to quote accurately: "Oh, a 'she' of course." – Edwin Ashworth Nov 18 '15 at 12:03
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    Thomas the Tank Engine is not an inanimate object, which takes him out of the scope of this question. – Euan M Nov 21 '15 at 22:48
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When I was a child, all of the hurricanes in my part of the world (the coast of the Gulf of Mexico) were given female names. One powerful hurricane whose eye passed over the city where I was living (Corpus Christi, Texas) inspired Lightning Hopkins's blues song "Hurricanes Carla and Esther," which identifies the hurricane itself as Carla and an associated tornado as "a twister named Esther." In the song, Hopkins repeatedly refers to each storm as "she." Most of the people I knew in coastal Texas back then referred to a hurricane as "it," but some, taking their cue from the storm's female name, called it "she." I don't remember anyone calling any hurricane in those days "he."

The National Hurricane Center has a very informative page dedicated to the history of hurricane names. Here are three paragraphs from it:

For several hundred years many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint's day on which the hurricane occurred. Ivan R. Tannehill describes in his book "Hurricanes" the major tropical storms of recorded history and mentions many hurricanes named after saints. For example, there was "Hurricane Santa Ana" which struck Puerto Rico with exceptional violence on July 26, 1825, and "San Felipe" (the first) and "San Felipe" (the second) which hit Puerto Rico on September 13 in both 1876 and 1928.

...

In 1953, the United States abandoned a confusing two-year old plan to name storms by a phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie) when a new, international phonetic alphabet was introduced. That year, the United States began using female names for storms.

The practice of naming hurricanes solely after women came to an end in 1978 when men's and women's names were included in the Eastern North Pacific storm lists. In 1979, male and female names were included in lists for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

The upshot of this fragment of history is that anyone who wants to argue that in English female gender is generally ascribed to beneficial things and male gender to potentially harmful things will have to account for the rather glaring counterexample of hurricane names from the period 1953–1979. Other weather and geologic events seem to get the "she" treatment as well.

From "A Square Peg," in Ainslee's, volume 33 (1914) [combined snippets]:

On the horizon a thin streak of white showed against the black of sky and sullen sea, and the distant roar of the coming storm swelled loud.

"Lay down from aloft there as soon as you can, men,'' Dave called out, "or she'll flatten ye against that riggin' so ye can't get down."

From Harry Kroll, Waters Over the Dam (1944):

The clouds were rising higher, and the heat was oppressive. My flesh was like leather and my bones like sticks. Usually I did not mind the work. This afternoon I just could not, some how, force myself. The mules were that way too. "She's fixing to rain tadpoles and wild catfish, Jeems!" I said once to the big black man.

From Edna and Carol Were Tough "Gals"," in Telephony, volume 147 (1954) [combined snippets]:

Neither was a lady. They were rough, tough girls. They were spawned—Carol and Edna—in the tropics. Once they were soft warm breezes, gently revolving. Then, like Cyclops, each grew a single clear blue "eye." Around this eye began to whirls, counter clock-wise, a ragged skirt of roaring wind, torrential rain and ocean spray.

Hurricanes are ugly cousins of those land-based monsters, the cyclone and the tornado. They are sisters of the Pacific typhoon. ...

She howled into Cape Cod and the New England mainland. She filled the streets of historic Providence with dirty tidal water. In Boston, she knocked down the tower of the North Church immortalized by the ride of Paul Revere.

From Ellen Rene, Investigating Volcanic Eruptions (2008):

She's Going to Blow!

When pressures inside magma chambers get too great, magma shoots out. Like toothpaste squeezed from a tube, it pushes through cracks to the surface.

From Barbara Freethy, Ryan's Return (2012):

"The river may be the main event. It's washing over Tucker's Bridge."

"But that bridge is low."

"We checked the high points, too. She's riding high, a couple more inches every hour."

"What are you saying?"

"I think she's going to flood."

From Michael Hodjera, The Komodo Cafe (2013):

"What is it? What's happening?"

"It's the volcano," said Chloe. From the feel of it, she's fixing to blow!"

So it appears that there is some sort of tradition in U.S. English of referring to major, powerful meteorological and geological events as "she." I don't think that any comparable tradition supports referring to such events as "he."

  • What do you think of the common rural dialectical use of "her" as a dummy subject, as in "get her done" (more commonly rendered as "git 'er done," and meaning get it done), etc. – Robusto Jan 8 at 3:38
  • @Robusto: Interesting question. I have a vague memory of people in rural southeast Texas, where my grandparents had a farm, saying things like "git 'er done" in relation to, say, digging a series of post holes for fencing, but honestly I can't say whether that memory is real or retroactively implanted through exposure to country music or some other recent influence. My grandparents themselves did not use that particular expression, but it does seem to be a feature of Southern rural dialect. – Sven Yargs Jan 8 at 5:59
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If the question is what pronoun(s) should be used for inanimate objects in professional writing (journalism, academic writing, etc.), then the answer is "it." For reference, the Associated Press Stylebook (2011) specifically names ships and countries as nouns that should not be referred to as "she," rather "it" is the correct word. Regarding the second bullet that references animals, this is a different question entirely, since animals (assuming they are living) are not inanimate objects, and the examples/conventions provided are correct - an animal that is familiar to you takes a gender pronoun, otherwise use the neutral "it."

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This is a fascinating issue you've brought up. Thank you!

There does seem to be much evidence to support this is true. However, this hypothesis seems only apparent in informal settings, especially in dialogue. Look at these examples:

  • A friend walks up to me as I'm exiting my Ferrari. He's more likely to say, "She's a beauty!"

  • I'm testing out a new and powerful firearm. I shoot it a few times, and I'm satisfied with it. I say, "Oh, she will definitely do the trick against any criminal."

Now, replace the pronoun "she" with the pronoun "he" in these examples, and it would sound a little strange.

With that said, I haven't heard examples an inanimate object that poses a threat being called a "he" with the exception of a few cases like the one below.

  • A scientist is examining the HIV virus under a microscope and says to another person in the room, "I'm studying the HIV virus, and boy is he a dangerous little bastard."
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    So, ... female = good, male = bad ? This IS how some men speak. But all men? And women? – Dan Nov 17 '15 at 13:00
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    ... And are they inviting mass actions for sexism? – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '15 at 13:19
  • The point is that there are conventions for writing/speaking, but barring a convention, writers should strive for gender neutral pronouns--within reason, of course. – Stu W Nov 23 '15 at 13:27
  • @Dan. No, female = something you are fond of or have a weakness for (even if it is a drug that is killing you, or a gambling habit, and therefore bad), male = something you want to control or negotiate with or via (even if it is something working for you, and therefore good. "He's a feisty little critter.") The latter is a habit mostly of mathematicians and scientists. I think the metaphor is obvious -- she is your partner in some way, he is a member of a sports team you are rooting for or against. – jobermark Nov 23 '15 at 22:57
  • I have to disagree with you on your assessment on pronouns, Jobermark. The use of female pronouns includes sentiments of respect also. And this comes from empirical evidence and not feministic bias, which I suspect your assessment is charged with. – Danny Rodriguez Nov 23 '15 at 23:19
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It's all arbitrary. There are some vague patterns, but they're extremely hard to pinpoint.

All cities are female. All countries are female.

All ships, airplanes, cars, and locomotives are female.

The Sun, the Moon, Life and Death seem to be male, at least in classic poetry. The Sea, on the other hand, is definitely a female. You'll recall Wordsworth:

The Sea that bares her bosom to the Moon

An elephant is portrayed as a female in many children's books, with some exceptions.

Rats, sharks, foxes and wolves are male. The jury's still out on the cat: cats are apparently male if you trust Kipling's linguistic instincts "The Cat That Walked by Himself", but someone really needs to look into the real reasons for the appearance of the word "tomcat."

Horses are male too. As are panthers, tigers, lions, and bears.

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    The Moon is often female (associated with feminine goddesses, etc.), though sometimes male in poetry. And though Death is definitely male, I can't think of common personification of Life with either gender. I'd be curious to see an example. – Athanasius Nov 22 '15 at 0:02
  • @Athanasius: Good points all. I'll think about it. – Ricky Nov 22 '15 at 0:06
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    @Athanasius - Well, Life is a bitch, and that's female. – Hot Licks Nov 22 '15 at 7:52
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    "Father time" "mother nature" The Greek goddess of hunting was also the moon goddess, bastards are always male, in response to Hot Licks; and not all ships have a female name. – Mari-Lou A Nov 22 '15 at 7:59
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    @HotLicks - true, though as Mari-Lou said, that statement seems more in line with a general personification of things as bitch or bastard. One might also say, "My job's a bitch" or whatever -- it's the explicitly mentioned connection to bitch which creates the sense of gender. If you just randomly referred to your job (or Life) as she without the prefatory "X is a bitch" comment, would it make sense? (In most cases, I think it would probably be confusing.) – Athanasius Nov 22 '15 at 14:51
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We get some of these from Latin conventions -- virtues and vices (that are not fundamental, which in Latin implies not ending in -or), thoughts, professions, countries, and aspects of landscape are all first-declension, and mostly become feminine in later romance languages.

(I always found it funny that patria, the Fatherland, is female. Immigrant sentiment makes this even funnier for America: She is not your mother, that is for the old country. Instead she is your uncle, Uncle Sam.)

English honors those conventions occasionally and extends them into a metaphor.

From the Latin trend, large objects that provide protection or identity, such as institutions or modes of transportation can be female. The metaphor is generally one of mother or desired partner.

But the Latin set also included your personality traits and thoughts, and 'auxilla' (handmaiden). So it includes 'mates' of other varieties -- tools and conventions that have to work intimately together with you, or act as extensions of yourself. The metaphor is that of wife or mistress.

This covers most of the common examples: mountains (including volcanos), rivers (like the Mississippi), ships, cities, countries, universities, clubs, arms of the military, the planet, the ocean, Nature, down to machinery and other tools. They can be she, generally according to one of these two metaphors.

Male personifications more often have to do with taking sides and deploying proxies.

Opponents are cast as male: the virus you are resisting, the variable that just won't fit, etc. (Note how much easier they are to swear at.)

So are proxies that you deploy as pawns, soldiers or faceless representatives:

  • The element one chooses from a group as an exemplar is, in many circles "this guy" or 'he'.
  • Computer scientists discussing interacting processes generally make them male.
  • Machines or tools that are female often have parts or independent parts within them, and, when gendered, those are generally male. A switch or transistor is likely to be a 'little guy'. (Sub-constructions that retain more of the character of the original may be female: the 'daughter' board of a computer motherboard.)

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