'Port' vs 'Starboard': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on July 28, 2023

‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’: What’s the Difference? Ahoy! Have you ever wanted to brush up on your sea-faring lingo? This article will help you do just that. Whether you’re an aspiring sailor or a novelist working on your next pirate adventure story, knowing the difference between these two words can help you be as accurate as possible. 

In a hurry? Here’s a quick overview of what’s to come: 

  • ‘Port’ is mainly a nautical term that means the front left side of a ship. 
  • ‘Starboard’ is also a nautical term that means the front right side of a ship. 

What’s the Difference Between ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’?

The terms ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’ are directional terms used typically to give commands on a ship or vessel. While they may sound straight out of a swashbuckling film, these words are still used on ships today — from small dinghies to world-class cruise ships. 

But what directions do they refer to? 

  • ‘Port’ refers to the front left side of the ship,
  • ‘Starboard’ refers to the front right side of the ship.
  • The back half of the ship is called the ‘Stern,’ and that encompasses the entire back so it’s not separated by the side.

Of course, if you’re not a frequent sailer remembering which is which might be complicated at first, but here’s a helpful hint: 

  • There are four letters in ‘Port’ and also four letters in ‘Left,’ which may serve as a reminder that the two match up. 

Some may be wondering why we use these words in the first place. Why not just say ‘left’ and ‘right’? Let’s answer that by diving into the history of ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard.’

The History of ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’: Where Did These Words Come From?

To learn the history of these words it is helpful to look at their etymology.

  • The word ‘Starboard’ comes from the Old English ‘steōrboard,’ which translates to “steer board” or “rudder side.” This was because early Teutonic vessels sailed with a paddle over the right side. 

Note that the Teutons were Germanic/Celtic people who lived in northern Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. 

Meanwhile, the word ‘Port’ actually has many meanings. Those will be covered in depth later, but the history of the word meaning ‘left side’ connects to one of its other definitions. 

  • The word ‘Port’ also means a harbor or dock where ships unload. Ships would often dock with the left side connecting to the port, hence the evolution of the ‘Port’ side. 

Now that we’ve taken a look at the history let’s take a closer look at the meanings of ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard.’ 

Definition of ‘Port’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Port’ is a noun that means: 

  • A town or city with a harbor where ships load or unload, especially one where customs officers are located
    • “The French port of Toulon.
  • A harbor
    • “This port has miles of docks."
  • The side of a ship or aircraft that is on the left when facing forward
    • “The ferry what listing to port.”
  • A strong, sweet, typically dark red fortified wine, originally from Portugal, typically drunk as a dessert wine
  • An opening in the side of a ship for loading and unloading
  • An opening in the body of an aircraft or armored vehicle through which a gun may be fired; a gun port
  • An opening for the passage of steam, liquid, or gas
    • “Loss of fuel from the exhaust port.”
  • (military) the position required by an order to port a rifle or other weapon
    • “Parker had his rifle at the port.”
  • (literary) a person’s carriage or bearing
    • “She had the proud port of a princess.”
  • (computing) a transfer of software from one system or machine to another
    • “The first port of a commercial database to this operating system.”

As a verb, the word ‘Port’ can also mean: 

  • To turn a ship or its helm into port
    • “The yacht raised all sail and ported its helm.”
  • Carry a rifle (or other weapon) diagonally across and close to the body with the barrel or blade near the left shoulder

Synonyms of ‘Port’ 

  • Left 
  • Larboard
  • Harbor
  • Wharf
  • Anchorage
  • Docks
  • Boatyard
  • Bearing

Antonyms of ‘Port’

  • Starboard
  • Right
  • Dextral
  • Closure
  • Outway
  • Vent

Phrases with ‘Port’

  • Make port
  • Porthole
  • Port-side
  • Port Authority 
  • Port wine
  • Port arms

Definition of ‘Starboard’; What Does it Mean? 

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Starboard’ is a noun that means: 

  • The side of a ship or aircraft that is on the right when facing forward
    • “I made a steep turn to starboard.”

As a verb, the word ‘Starboard’ means:

  • Turn a ship or its helm to starboard
    • “A red light is always a signal not to starboard the helm.”

Synonyms of ‘Starboard’

  • Right 
  • Rightward
  • Right-hand
  • Dextral
  • Dexter

Antonyms of ‘Starboard’

  • Port
  • Left
  • Larboard
  • Leftward
  • Left-hand

Phrases with ‘Starboard’

  • Starboard side 
  • Turn starboard
  • Starboarded 

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’ 

A major component of learning new words is making sure you can pronounce them properly. Especially if you’re going to use these words on an actual ship, you want to make sure the crew can hear you loud and clear and you’re not sending people in the wrong direction. 

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Port’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Pōrt’ (with a long “o” as in ‘store’)

Note! In British English, the word may be pronounced ‘pawt’.

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Starboard’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Staar-buhrd’ (with the second syllable sounding more like ‘bird’)

How to Use ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’ in a Sentence

Knowing when to use words properly is the final key to successfully mastering them, and there’s no better way to learn that than seeing words in action. Since some words like ‘Port’ have a variety of definitions, it’s good to see all the contexts in which the word can appear.

Read the example sentences below to get a jump on learning context clues, then try writing your own sample sentences to nail down definitions. 

‘Port’ Example Sentences

  • The ship listed to the port side as the storm sent waves crashing into the hull. 
  • The cruise ship was set to make port at three different tropical islands during its week-long journey
  • The girls decided to try port wine with dessert since they were traveling in Portugal, the drink’s country of origin. 
  • The scientist notices a gas leak in the fuel port for their latest prototype. 
  • Once they made it to port, he leaped off the boat, anxious to return to dry land. 
  • The port had hundreds of docks filled with everything from sailboats to luxury yachts.

‘Starboard’ Example Sentences

  • The captain pointed out a pod of dolphins swimming next to the ship’s starboard side. 
  • The vessel abruptly starboarded, narrowly escaping an underwater missile that had been fired their way. 
  • The higher-level officers slept on the starboard side, which had a nice view of the sunset on this journey. 

Final Advice on ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’ 

While nautical terms may not seem like everyday use, knowing the difference between ‘Port’ vs ‘Starboard’ can make you look more professional when joining sea-faring conversations. Whether you use this knowledge on your next ocean adventure or when doing research about your next cruise vacation, remember to keep your definitions and history in line. 

Want to review it? Here’s a short recap of what we learned: 

  • ‘Port’ is a noun that means the left side of a ship and a harbor where things can be loaded or unloaded. 
  • Meanwhile, ‘Starboard’ is the opposite and means the right side of a ship. 

Want to keep expanding your vocabulary knowledge? Check out other confusing words so you are prepared for your next adventure — whether you’re going on one or writing about it. And don’t be afraid to tackle words that you don’t always use every day; they could help you stand out in the future.

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.