Pronoun question: referring to inanimate objects as ‘he’ or ‘she’

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.


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’!”

Source : Link , Question Author : Augustin , Answer Author : Athanasius

Leave a Comment