The meaning of “right” in “right by my desk”

Let's say you were asked where is the book that you borrowed from someone. Then you say:

''It is right by my desk''

What does the right mean in the answer? Does it mean that it is on the desk or in the desk?

P.S: I have already looked into the Cambridge online dictionary, which I mean is that there are numerous variations of the right usage, and it depends on a particular situation.(don't waste your time to go off topic, just stick to this one)

• "by my desk" = "close to my desk". "right by my desk" = "VERY close to my desk". It's as simple as that. – ell May 24 '18 at 17:56

I suppose the dictionary definition of "exactly" that the other answer mentioned sort of works, but in this context, as a native speaker, I'd interpret "right" to mean "near." So if someone told me to get something that was "right by her desk" I'd look for it all around her desk and expect to find it close to the desk.

Edit: As I mentioned in the comments, "by my desk" already means near, so "right" is used as an intensifier. The reason I don't think that "exactly" works very well here is that the meaning of "exactly" is very precise, and the concept of "by" isn't something that can be pinned down with exact precision. However, here are some examples using something that can be pinned down with precision:

It is in the center of my desk.

If you said this to me, I'd expect to see "it" somewhere close to the center of your desk, but I'd look in a fairly big radius.

It is right in the center of my desk.

I would now expect it to be closer to the center of your desk, and I'd look in a smaller radius, but I would accept that there might be some variance from center.

It is exactly in the center of my desk.

If you said this, I'd expect that if I got out a tape measure and measured your desk, I'd find it in the exact center.

It might be helpful to point out that this meaning where right means "exactly" or "almost exactly" is mostly used to intensify expressions that describe location or time. Here is another example, using time, of a way "right" is used to mean "almost exactly." If I arrived three minutes late to a meeting, the following conversation could take place:

Me: Sorry, I'm late.
Other person: No, don't worry about it. You're right on time.

Now, obviously, I wasn't exactly on time. But the other person is saying I was close enough to exactly on time that it doesn't matter. Other people have said my answer is wrong because "right" doesn't mean "near." They have a good point, but I maintain that this sense of "right" is used specifically to intensify closeness (in location or time). For examples, these two sentences mean almost the same thing:

She is right beside me.
She is close beside me.

Will brings up an interesting argument in the comments that "right above" doesn't necessarily mean something is any closer to an object than just "above." However, if you are standing in a room, any ceiling light is "above" you, no matter where it is in the room. If you say it is "right above" you, it means you are standing directly under it. If you measured the distance between you and it, it would certainly be closer to you than it would be if it were across the room!

The word "right" has a lot of meanings and can be used as an adjective, adverb, or noun. But this is how you can interpret it when used to intensify an expression of location or time.

• Well, I think that most of the time you can think of it as meaning "exactly" like the other answer said. But if it doesn't seem to be pinpointing a truly exact location (or time), then it's serving to emphasize that it's "very close." Does that make sense? In this sentence, you could almost ignore it. If you say, "it's by my desk" that means it's close to your desk. If you say, "it's right by my desk" that means it's very close to your desk. – joiedevivre May 23 '18 at 10:26
• I don't get how your answer differs from mine but you are associating "near" with "right" and as you can see from my excerpts is "by" the word that means "near" and not "right". I guess that you can not say "It's right desk" (and less if the book is at the left side). "Right", as you stated in the comment above is used for emphasis. – RubioRic May 23 '18 at 10:51
• I wasn't disagreeing with your answer at all (in fact, I upvoted it). It's just that I don't think "exactly" makes very much sense in this context, so it might not be very useful to an English language learner. You are right that the important point here is that it's being used to emphasize nearness in this context. Anytime it's used with something that already means nearness, it's used for emphasis, such as right next to or right beside. But there are also times when it truly does mean "exactly," such as right here or right on time. – joiedevivre May 23 '18 at 10:57
• I think 'immediately' is a close equivalent. The use of 'right' like this is an intensifier. Something isn't pretty close to your desk, in the general area of your desk it is right at your desk meaning immediately next to it. Also refer to phrases like "he is right outside your door", "she did it right next to a police officer", "he opened it right after he told me he wouldn't" – Eric Nolan May 23 '18 at 11:46
• I get it now. PROXIMITY is what you guys are saying am I right?, the most conclusive thing would be that the ''nearness'' is emphasized when you include the ''right''. I already know what ''by''(preposition) means before I asked, thanks. I have just reviewed the link provided by Rubio, but the **right**(exactly) adverb thingy as I realized is a bit off in relation to this prepositional query. Sry dude, but THX very much. – John Arvin May 23 '18 at 13:44

No, it means that the book is exactly by the desk. Neither in nor on.

EDITED: As @J.R has mentioned in the comments below, "the book is exactly by the desk" is NOT idiomatic, it sounds awkward. I have used it just to explain the meaning, how right is used in this context, as an adverb that emphasizes the particle by.

According to Cambridge Dictionary

by preposition (POSITION)

near or at the side of

right adverb (EXACTLY) [used for emphasis]

​exactly

• That may be a valid definition, but I wouldn't replace right with exactly in the OP's sentence. "'It is right by my desk'' sounds normal and idiomatic; "'It is exactly by my desk'' sounds awkward and off. As a matter of fact, "exactly by" is almost like an oxymoron, since "exactly" implies precision while "near" implies general proximity. – J.R. May 23 '18 at 21:31
• @J.R. it is common that if you replace all the words in an idiom with synonyms then it sounds weird. – OrangeDog May 24 '18 at 8:22
• @OrangeDog Thanks! That's the point. I was not trying to rephrase OP's sentence in a legit way, just trying to explain its meaning. I think that "right" is used as adverb for emphasis and that's the reference I found to back it. – RubioRic May 24 '18 at 8:39
• @OrangeDog - Sure, but don't you think that's worth mentioning to learners? I think a learner might easily read this answer and assume the word right could be replaced by exactly. – J.R. May 24 '18 at 8:41
• @J.R. You're right. [Editing my post] – RubioRic May 24 '18 at 9:01

In the context of giving directions like this, it seems like right means something like "very" or "directly".

The operative word here is actually by, which in this case means "near" or "near to". Here right is just an intensifier to by.

I would expect by my desk to mean neither "in" nor "on", but "near to". So perhaps on another desk nearby, or on the floor near the speaker's desk.

In other words,

It is right by my desk

is roughly equivalent to

It is very near my desk

We would often use 'right' as intensifier for a location when we want to emphasise the proximity of the thing or person being discussed, particularly to someone who is unaware of it. Someone on the phone: Have you seen John lately? Me: he's right next to me!. My father: have you seen my glasses? Me: They are right in front of you on the table!. Also as a general-purpose intensifier - I was right in the middle of road, he was right at the end of the line. We can also use 'right' as an intensifier when we are talking about location in time - right before, right after.

I would not say 'on the desk' or 'in the desk' is correct, since 'by' is neither 'in' nor 'on'.

This 'right' is really 'directly' （quotes from www.etymonline.com)

Old English rehte, rihte "in a straight or direct manner," from right (adj.1). Right on! as an exclamation of approval first recorded 1925 in African-American vernacular, popularized mid-1960s by Black Panther movement.

Also, a verbal use of right is 'right something = set something straight' :

Old English rihtan "to straighten, rule, set up, set right, amend; guide, govern; restore, replace," from riht (adj.); see right (adj.1). Compare Old Norse retta "to straighten," Old Saxon rihtian, Old Frisian riuchta, German richten, Gothic garaihtjan. Related: Righted; righting.

This right is also related to the 'rect' part of 'direct'

late 14c., from Latin directus "straight," past participle of dirigere "set straight" (see direct (v.)).

Comparing German, I would use 'direkt neben' for 'right by'.

• Just a commendation for the rigorous fact-finding efforts you put in. – John Arvin May 24 '18 at 5:09

"Right" is a modifier, it emphasises the following word.

• "The ball went right by his head" = The ball went very close to his head.
• "The ball went right on his head" = The ball went squarely on his head.
• "The ball went right over his head" = The ball went far over his head (but directly over).
• "The ball went right around his head" = The ball went all the way around his head (somehow?!).

As you can see, it doesn't necessarily equate to proximity.

• It's right good, this answer. Arguably such use of right is more specifically as an intensifier. – FumbleFingers May 24 '18 at 14:32
• As someone raised in Lancashire and who went to uni in Yorkshire, I can comfortably say that's right nice of you to say so. – Easy Tiger May 24 '18 at 18:42
• As a native English speaker (U.S., California), to me "right over his head" does not specify whether it is near or far. "The ball went right over his head" = The ball went directly over his head (not necessarily near or far). – Nathan Hinchey May 24 '18 at 20:17

I don't know whether it's useful, or simply switching one idiom for another, but in this type of usage "right" can be replaced by "just"

It is just by the desk.
There is someone just outside the door.
It happened just after that.

This amuses me, because things can be described as "right and just" but they are different meanings to these.

• I really want to agree with you, as I think they are close linked with each other, still there may be a slight difference. So not totally. Natives englishmen can answer this I suppose. – John Arvin May 24 '18 at 13:15
• I am a native Englishman, @JohnArvin. Although, perhaps, right is even more an intensifier than just. – JCRM May 24 '18 at 13:39
• Oh I see, my bad. And I also have some mistakes on my first comment, forget it, just a typo mostly. – John Arvin May 24 '18 at 14:09