Mar 29

Notes on Writing Naval (Not Navy) English by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, USN

Monday, March 29, 2010 4:00 AM


From the NHHC’s archives…

RADM S.E. Morison, USN

According to Rear Admiral Samuel E. Morison, USN, author of the historic 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II:

The sea has a language of its own, and the air has largely taken it over, with a few necessary additions and modifications. Everyone who writes naval or maritime history should endeavor to use the strong, short words and plain, terse phrases that are consecrated by centuries of sea usage, and not try to translate them into current journalese or other jargon.

1. Ship and Plane Motion

Never say trip when you mean passage or voyage. The distinction between the two is that a passage (outward, homeward or from one point to another) is part of a voyage. Trip may be used only only for a boat trip from ship to shore or for a coastwise journey, like some of the short-range amphibious operations in New Guinea and the Philippines.

There are three different verbs to use for the act of a ship making an exit from port: sail, depart, and leave. All three are correct; I prefer the first two. Sortie should be used sparingly, never for a single ship, and only when a task force or other large group leave a harbor with a restricted channel in accordance with a sortie plan. Sortie is used in a special sense by naval aviation, meaning one flight by one plane. For instance, if 3o planes of carrier YORKTOWN make a morning and afternoon strike on 8 May, 23 other planes make one strike only, and 8 are sent out on search missions; she is said to have made 91 sorties that day. Planes flown as combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrol are now counted as sorties.

For a verb expressing the motion of a naval vessel or force, sail or steam is preferable to go or proceed, although the latter are correct. “The task force sailed from Oahu to Leyte” and “The cruisers steamed through the Straits of Gibraltar.” Note how flat it sounds if you substitute went r proceeded. It does not matter if neither sail nor steam are used as motive power; the derived verbs are still best for the motion of a ship.

Similarly, aircraft are always said to fly, even though their motive power is very different from that of a bird.

To read the rest of Professor Morison’s notes, click here.

  • BJ Armstrong

    Great find! I’m in the middle of reading “The Purpose of the Past” by Gordon Wood, about the big picture of writing history (a collection of his reviews from over the years). Having something like SEM’s nuts and bolts reminders is a great flip side to the same coin.

  • Thanks BJ! Glad you liked this post!

  • I’ve skimmed the paper and am pleased to read SEM’s reasoning behind various stylistic points. But I didn’t find reference to policy regarding the article “the” before a ship’s name. Morison always did without, i.e., “The second salvo straddled Northampton” vice “the Northampton.” The various publishers I’ve worked with have their own style guides, and most take the civilian(ized) view of “THE Northampton.”

  • chengster

    great post!

  • @Chengster thanks be sure to tell your friends about this new blog.
    @Barrett Tillman. Thanks for commenting and sharing your views about the various style guides. Wonder what grade his students at Harvard received if they used “the” before a ship’s name.

  • Jim Valle

    Morison’s discussion of nautical usage was very helpful. The pleasure of reading a maritime history book or article is at least partially ruined when the author can’t express him/herself in correct nauticalese. One thing Morison left out is the somewhat different “language” used in the Merchant Marine. For example, a ship’s Captain is referred to as her Master, the crew is her people, the Executive Officer is the Chief Mate and the black gang works in the engine room. The ship’s principal divisions are designated by numbers, such as number four hold or number two tween deck. There is also a large vocabulary for describing various aspects of ships under sail, different rigs and etc. An author can spend a lifetime mastering nautical prose but nothing enhances his/her credibility like good maritime usage

  • NHHC

    @Jim. Thanks for commenting. Totally agree that inaccurate nauticalese can take away from what should be a good book.

  • CDR Mark R Condeno, Phili Coast Guard Aux


    This is great,RADM Morrisson’s books has a special place on my shelve.As a book reviewer and writer,this is a great guide.