Notes on Writing Naval (not Navy) English

By SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON

Historian of U. S. Naval Operations, 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 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 leaves 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 30 planes of carrier Yorktown make a morning and an 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 not 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 or 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.

2. 'Personnel'

Sailor is properly used for any seaman, whether naval or merchant marine. Although in the Royal Navy any officer is proud to be called a 'sailor,' there is an unfortunate tendency in the United States Navy to deny this fine old word to officers. I was shocked, on asking a pretty young thing if her husband was a sailor, to hear her reply snippily, 'No, he's an Ensign!' The term bluejacket, however, is properly applied only to enlisted men.

Personnel is a word that is being worked to death. Avoid it when you can. Instead of enlisted personnel say enlisted men, bluejackets or simply men. The dignity of seafarers is not enhanced by calling them personnel.

'People who are called "personnel",' says Collier's for 3 May 1947, 'do not "go," they "proceed." They do not "have," they "are in possession of." They do not "ask," they "make application for." ... They cannot "eat," they only "consume"; they do not "wash" but "perform ablutions"; instead of "houses" or "homes" they have "places of residence" in which, instead of "living," they "are domiciled." To which one might add, they 'take a boat ride' instead of a sea voyage; they 'operate' a gun instead of firing it; they never see anything but 'observe' it; they never hurry but 'expedite'; and they are never moved or impelled by anything, only 'motivated.'

The term personnel casualties is tautological; casualties implies human beings unless qualified by some such word as material. Damage is preferable to material casualties, although the latter is correct.1

3. On Board, please!

A sailor serves or fights in and not on a ship; if you use on, it must be accompanied by board. Aboard is not good naval written English except in certain phrases such as close aboard (within 600 yards).

4. Colors

You set a sail, raise the jack or ensign, hoist a signal, but break (out) an admiral's flag, commodore or squadron commander's broad pennant or division commander's pennant. Never call the ensign or a pennant a flag; but the ensign and jack, or both, are called the colors.

'The Admiral flew his flag in U.S.S. Ohio,' or 'wore his flag in U.S.S. Ohio.' Both are correct; the former is preferable.

'The guide ship flew a blue pennant at the dip and hoisted it two-blocks as a signal for the boat waves to depart,' is correct.

5. Off and On

Say keep clear of, not away from a minefield, reef, other ships or obstruction. You can 'make an approach' but it is better nautical usage to close, not approach the land or another ship.

6. Watches

Refer to the watches on board by their names and not by their limiting hours:

First watch (2000-2400), Mid watch (0000-0400), Morning watch (0400-0800), Forenoon watch (0800-1200), Afternoon watch (1200-1600), Dog watches (1600-1800, 1800-2000).

Make more use of this watch time. For instance, say 'The force closed the land during the first watch,' instead of 'between 2000 and midnight.'

7. A few more 'Don'ts'

Avoid as much as possible the use of we and our. This cannot be done altogether, but so far as possible substitute United States, United States and British, United Nations for our side, as you hope your history will be read by men of other nations.

Sagas and epics have become stale and cheesy from journalistic abuse, and go easy on armada. Don't call an action or other episode historic because everything you write is historic or it wouldn't be there.

Avoid quite as an adverb. 'The landings in Sicily were quite different from those in North Africa.' You mean very, or altogether different.

When a plane falls into the sea, say it splashed or was splashed, if knocked down by a gun or by another plane. Use crashed for the plane falling onto a ship or land.

8. Meteorology

Always describe the weather in relating a naval or amphibious operation. In general, state whether the day is bright, fair, overcast (give per cent), rainy, squally, etc.; direction of wind in points (preferable to degrees) and its velocity, especially in carrier operations. For wind velocity use either the Beaufort scale or knots or exact descriptive terms. I prefer the Beaufort as a scale known to all seamen, but knots are more accurate. If you use a descriptive term be precise; don't say it was 'blowing a gale of wind' when it was merely a force-6, 25-knot strong breeze.

The following scale of equivalents in wind velocity is from Bowditch, 1934 edition, page 37:

No.in
Beaufort Scale
    Knots         Seaman's or
Weather Bureau term
1   1-3   light air
2   4-6   light air
3   7-10   gentle breeze
4   11-16   moderate breeze
5   17-21   fresh breeze
6   22-27   strong breeze
7   28-33   strong breeze or moderate gale
8   34-40   fresh gale, or gale
9   41-47   strong gale, or gale
10   48-55   whole, hard, or heavy gale
11   56-65   storm, or whole gale
12   65-up   hurricane

Give sunrise and sunset in the local zone time whenever relevant. Always tell the phase of the moon, and, when there is any night action, moonrise or moonset.

9. Abaft and Astern

Preserve the distinction. Abaft is a direction within a ship or a bearing from a ship. A bomb may hit the deck 25 yards abaft No. 2 stack, or a periscope may be sighted to port, 3 points (34°) abaft the beam. But you say that a plane splashed or a bomb missed, 100 yards astern of the ship. Aft of need not be used at all; abaft or astern will meet every need.

10. Bow, beam, and quarter

All three are bearings; the bow or bows are also a part of the ship. A missile cannot strike a ship on the starboard beam (say starboard side amidships) or on the port quarter (say port side aft, or port side of the 'fantail,' a new naval term that is now in good use). Properly speaking, you sight a light, or a near-miss explodes, on (not off) the port beam, on (not off) the starboard quarter, on (not off) the bow. But, as the non-seagoing public will assume that an explosion or a plane coming down 'on the port quarter' means a hit on board the ship, you had better use some qualifying word such as '25 yards away on the port quarter,' 'broad on the bow' (for about 45° from ship's course), 'broad on the starboard quarter' (for about 135° from ship's course), 'close aboard on the port side,' etc.

11. Official Phrases

Certain phrases and locutions commonly employed in Action Reports, Operation Plans, Tactical Manuals, and other official documents are working themselves into naval history as well, without due cause. Among those which this historian regards as inappropriate are the following:

The bastard conjunction and/or. Never use it.

Navy as an adjective. Use naval.

Plus as a substitute for and or together with; minus as a substitute for less or without. Plus and minus are mathematical terms, and should be used only in statistics and lists, such as 'Desron 32 minus Perry, plus Wainwright.'

Surface ship is tautological, except where used in contrast to submarines. If a vessel cannot operate on the surface, it is not a ship. Airplanes are not ships, although the Army calls them so. Surface craft is another abominable phrase. Aircraft has come into use and is not incorrect, but properly it means both planes and blimps and should be used sparingly. Small craft is all right for vessels larger than boats but smaller than ships.

Task force or group designations, while right and proper in operation plans and the like, are to be used very sparingly in narrative history. Write 'Northern Attack Force,' not 'TF 52.' Write 'Rear Admiral P. H. Henry,' or simply 'Admiral Henry,' not 'CTG 51.1.' Otherwise no non-professional reader can follow you.

Area. This word has at least two legitimate uses in naval history: (1) In such phrases as transport area (in an amphibious landing), mined area, target area; (2) as the name of a definite command or defined oceanic region such as South Pacific Area. But it is now being used tautologically, or as a substitute for sea, island and the like. Never say, 'The fleet entered the Bismarck Area.' Bismarck Sea is right. Or, 'The expeditionary force was staged in the Hawaiian Area.' Hawaiian Islands is right. I have even seen 'Mediterranean Area' used instead of 'Mediterranean Sea' in official reports. It is a good rule not to use area when another word, such as region, will do. Say theater, not area, of operations.

Oral, not verbal orders. A verbal order is written.

Prior to is being misused for before or previous to.

Tip is being misused for point, cape, end or promontory of an island or other land mass.

Total of is incorrect. Either the of is redundant, or whole of is meant. Incidentally, write all the ships; no need of an of there.

Due to is being misused for owing to or because of.

A salvo means two or more shots fired simultaneously. There is no such thing as a one-gun salvo. You might as well say a one-bird flock or a one-cow herd.

Do not mix up disposition and formation. A cruising or approach disposition may include several formations (circular, in column, in line, or line of bearing).

The use of dates based on a D or other designated day of attack is out of place in historical narrative. Say 4 June 1944, not D minus 2 day; or, 12 June, not D plus 6. If you wish to call attention to the nearness of D day, put it in parentheses, thus: 'On 16 June (D plus 10) the weather turned foul.'

There seems to be an idea abroad that Secretary Josephus Daniels abolished starboard and port in the United States Navy. That is not true. Even with the enormous infiltration of landsmen in World War II, the Navy, like the Merchant Marine, still uses forward and aft, starboard and port, above and aloft and below. Ships still have bulkheads, not walls; cabins or compartments, not rooms (except in composition like wardroom, storeroom, etc.); overheads, not ceilings, and decks, not floors. What Mr. Daniels did change (and it was all to the good) was the form of orders to helmsmen, who no longer have to translate 'port your helm!' into a right turn on the wheel, or 'starboard helm!' into a left turn. Orders are now given as 'left' or 'right' so many degrees, or 'left' or 'right standard rudder' with variations, assuming the helmsman to be facing forward.

It will be a sad day when sea language leaves English literature, and there is some reason to fear that it is slipping. Let all writers of naval or maritime history, or nautical fiction, do their part to keep sea language alive.


1. The adjective is spelled with an a; but as a noun, military matériel is correct. Consult dictionary for difference between material and matériel.


Source: The American Neptune (January 1949): 5-9.

Acknowledgement: The Navy Department Library gratefully acknowledges the permission of Samuel Loring Morison to post this article written by his grandfather Samuel Eliott Morison on the Naval History and Heritage Command website. All rights reserved by Samuel Loring Morison.