18 February 2021
The classic film Star Wars: A New Hope has a very famous scene. Actors Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford say the following words:
What a piece of junk!
She'll make .5 past light speed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications myself.
In today's Everyday Grammar, we will explore the grammar behind these famous words.
Specifically, you will learn how English speakers sometimes use different pronouns when talking about inanimate objects.
But first, let's explore some important terms.
Inanimate objects and pronouns
Animate means alive – particularly in the way that humans or animals are.
The term inanimate object means an object that is not alive, such as a rock, a chair, or a spacecraft.
English speakers generally use the pronoun it to talk about an object or substance, as in:
He saw the guitar and immediately decided to buy it.
English speakers also use it to talk about a living thing whose sex is unknown, as in:
Someone is at the door.
I don't know who it is.
But notice how Harrison Ford used the pronoun she to talk about his spacecraft – an inanimate object.
She'll make .5 past light speed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid.
In an unusual turn of events, English speakers sometimes use other pronouns to talk about inanimate objects – usually with the pronoun she.
To be clear: this use is not very common. Still, you might hear she when people are talking about objects that are very close to them. For example, it could be an object that a person has worked on or been with for many years.
Often, these objects will be large and used for transportation - cars, ships, boats, and yes, even spacecraft. It would sound strange to talk about a smaller, simpler object with the pronoun she. For example, it would be hard to imagine a speaker of American English using she to talk about a nail or a flower pot.
Different kinds of English
Speakers of different kinds of English refer to inanimate objects in slightly different ways. In a paper on New Zealand English, Laurie Bauer notes that she is used to talk about inanimate objects – particularly if the object is "a ship, car, or other piece of much-loved machinery."
But, Bauer adds, speakers of New Zealand English use she to refer to objects in a way that is different from other kinds of English. One example Bauer gives is "she's a good crash-helmet," a statement made in an everyday discussion.
Bauer notes that this use also sometimes appears in Australian English. He is careful to add that some kinds of Australian English also use he with a similar meaning.
The good news for you is this: you do not need to use the pronoun she in the way that we have discussed today.
When you are speaking, you should use the pronoun it when you talk about inanimate objects. This will help you avoid any confusing situations.
But understanding how some English speakers use different pronouns can be useful to you – particularly if you are listening to everyday discussions or watching films.
The next time you are watching American films – and particularly films about spacecraft, cars, boats, or ships – pay careful attention to the pronouns that the speakers use when they talk about inanimate objects.
Over time, you will develop a stronger understanding of the small details in meaning that different pronouns can give.
I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Words in This Story
scene – n. a part of a play, movie, story, etc., in which a particular action or activity occurs
junk – n. something that is in very poor condition
modification – n. the act or process of changing parts of something : the act or process of modifying something
nail – n. a long, thin piece of metal that is sharp at one end and flat at the other end and that is used chiefly to attach things to wood
pot – n. a container that is used for storing or holding something
helmet – n. a very strong, hard hat that is worn to protect your head when you are riding a bicycle, motorcycle, etc.