John entered the hall. On/to his left was a table.

John saw that to/on his left was a table.

On Google, I found more results with "to", but I guess that doesn't make "on" wrong. To my ear, "on" refers to a more generic position, and closer to the subject, whereas "to" refers to a precise direction, that might be very distant. Another example:

On/to his left was a mountain.

To me "on" sounds like the mountain is closer, almost towering the subject. "To" instead make the mountain farther from him. Am I correct? If not, what are the differences? In which contexts one is preferable over the other?

  • 1
    One more: at someone's left!
    – Maulik V
    Jul 11, 2018 at 9:32

1 Answer 1


There is no big difference, and you have already googled (though the 'general' search is not that reliable!) and found out that 'to' is more. There's nothing to say more on that.

I checked Ngram and carefully read many examples for both the phrases. There's no difference at all. Both phrases have been used to denote a person, a thing, a big thing, and all such entities. So, don't bother much. They both are the same in almost all contexts.

But, personally, I'd prefer writing to, because we are talking about a direction.

  • 1
    (–1) Native speakers would probably disagree (see the question this one's a duplicate of). Also, if you have already introduced extra options (at), please explain when you'd use them, because that's only muddying the waters.
    – user3395
    Jul 11, 2018 at 11:00
  • 2
    @userr2684291 - I'm a native speaker, and I don't disagree. As for that question you've linked to, it has one answer that merely speculates how "to your left" may be considered a bit more leftward than "on your left," but even that is described as more of a personal opinion than a hard-and-fast rule. Many learners seem to struggle with the idea that we can sometimes use two (or even three) different prepositions in a sentence with virtually no change in meaning, and the OP's "John saw a table _____ his left" is one good example, as this answer aptly points out.
    – J.R.
    Jul 11, 2018 at 15:03
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    @userr2684291 - I don't buy that there's "always" a difference, or that one preposition is destined to "fall out of favor." Consider, for example: talking on the phone vs. talking over the phone; or a book about politics vs. a book on politics. As long as dictionaries define prepositions with other prepositions, there will be some cases with more overlap than difference. The word on can mean "with" (no money on/with me); the word with can mean "against" (wrestle with/against demons); the word against can mean "from" (protection against/from disease), and so on.
    – J.R.
    Jul 11, 2018 at 17:20
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    @userr2684291 - RE: Google Books Ngram Viewer results are really not much of an indicator either you'd have to see what the book is describing in order to register any differences. Yes, and this answer specifically states: "I carefully read many examples for both the phrases." (Ngrams will let you do that, if you use the links on/at the bottom of the page.)
    – J.R.
    Jul 11, 2018 at 17:34
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    @userr2684291 - Exactly. There's a big difference between "there is no big difference" (what this answer says) and "they are exactly the same" (what your comment says). There's also a big difference between "X and Y mean the same thing" (what you said) and "X and Y can mean the same thing" (what I said). That's why there's not "always" a difference (what you said).
    – J.R.
    Jul 13, 2018 at 0:14

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