Ships of the Line (Edits)

Ever wondered how and when to italicize ship names in your fantasy, or spaceship names in your sci-fi?

It’s easier for your reader if you adhere to real maritime style and procedure as closely as possible, unless you establish a clear and rational reason for doing otherwise. For your reference, here are some good guidelines to follow.

per Chicago Manual of Style (section 8.115: Names of Ships and other Vessels):

  • Capitalize and italicize ship names. (The Enterprise)
  • Do not put ship names in all caps.
  • Do not use italics for names of makes/classes or routes of ships, trains, cars or other vehicles, or names of space programs. (Metroliner, Ford Mustang, Project Apollo)
  • Never italicize abbreviations such as USS or HMS when they precede a ship’s name. (The HMS Pinafore)

per Chicago Manual of Style (section 7.28: Possessive with italicized or quoted terms):

  • When an italicized term appears in roman text, the possessive s should be set in roman. (Destiny’s anchor)
  • (File this one under “right, but looks wrong.” I know. But you do get used to it eventually, and I think it can make a subliminal difference to the reader.)

NOTE: any term within an italicized passage, if it would itself be italicized in running text (such as a ship name) should be set in roman type (reverse italics). (What was she trying to do? Sail Nautilus right off the edge of the world?)

per the U.S. Navy Style Guide:

  • Do not use “the” (the definite article) in front of a ship’s name: “USS San Jose,” not “the USS San Jose.”

(NOTE: There is plenty of debate on this in actual usage. The rule in general practice seems to be that “the” is acceptable informally, but not formally. 
Other rules of thumb for fiction-writing suggest that “the” is reserved only for particularly well-known ships (“the Black Pearl ”). 
Or, alternately, that it should be reserved for ships that have no prefix (HMS, USS, etc). 
Or, that it may be used when the ship is referenced by nickname or abbreviated name. (Referring to Orin’s Pride as “the Pride”)

(As an editor, I acknowledge that sometimes leaving out the “the” just looks wrong. Consistency and ease of readability are a writer’s goals, not strict adherence to the protocol of a system that doesn’t exist in the world you’ve created, anyway. As long as you’re consistent about it, I won’t fuss at you. The rest of these rules are good habits to get into.)

(originally posted 3/24/2011 on