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I'm a non-native teacher of English and I work with adults.

On Monday we studied prepositions of place and when my students were working with the picture The hotel roomone of them asked if we should say

"The sink is next to the toilet"

or

"The sink is behind the toilet"

I feel we should use "next to" because the toilet doesn't cover the front side of the sink and some of my students agreed with me. That very student, however, is an engineer and he sees geometry everywhere. He said that if a person was standing on the rug they would see the toilet covering the most part of the sink, so "The sink is behind the toilet". You are looking at the sink

Now I'm pretty confused. Which preposition would you use and why?

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    I can see both points of view. In terms of position relative to the viewer, and pictorial composition, yes, the sink is "behind" (further away than) the toilet, but a toilet is designed to be sat on, and considered as an admittedly specialised kind of chair, has a "front" and "back" relative to an occupant, whether present or not. Someone seated on the toilet would consider the sink to be "next to" them. If the toilet's owner had placed one of those U-shaped rubber mat things on the floor, I think most people would say it was "in front of" the bowl, and not beside it. – Michael Harvey Nov 27 '18 at 19:53
  • I like the illustration in this book. Can I ask what it is? – kandyman Nov 27 '18 at 20:49
  • @kandyman that's Traveller - Beginners by Mitchell H.Q. – Alice Nov 27 '18 at 20:54
  • [minor point: covering most of the sink. But otherwise, bravo.] – Lambie Nov 27 '18 at 21:49
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Bathrooms are laid out with toilets against a wall. Always. Unless you are a king and have a toilet in the middle of the room. Very unusual, to say the least.

Therefore, nothing can ever be "behind" a toilet. The front and the back of a toilet are "set things". They don't change depending on your point of view.

When any built structure has items up against a wall like a toilet, there is a front (where your feet go) and a back to the toilet that is up against the wall. The back of the element is against a wall (sink and toilet) and the front sides face outwards. This is pretty much standard in the Western world.

Even if there is a partially obstructed view, one would not say the toilet is behind the sink. The toilet and sink in the picture are next to each other.

So, teacher, you were right and your student was mistaken. And I believe this is probably the same thing in most languages.

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Conventionally you'd describe the fixtures in the bath from a point-of-view facing them.

So the sink is next to or to the left of the toilet.

In the sketch, which shows the room from the doorway, from a vantage-point outside the room, the sink is behind the toilet—but only from that vantage point.

From a point-of-view of someone seated on the toilet, the sink is to the right of the toilet. But that is not the conventional point-of-view.

  • The vantage point comes from installation. Not from the viewer. A toilet has a front and back, and that would not change regardless of the view you have of them. – Lambie Nov 27 '18 at 21:59
  • @Lambie: I don't know what you're talking about by "installation". I'm talking about the conventional "virtual" vantage point assumed when describing the position of the sink in a bathroom relative to another fixture, like a toilet. It's normally done as if you were facing the sink head-on. Not looking into the room from a hallway, not standing in the shower, not sitting on the toilet. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 27 '18 at 22:04
  • Toilets and sinks are installed in bathrooms. That is what installation is. They are only installed in one way, the back of the toilet or sink to the wall and the front facing outwards. That is the perspective from which one would talk about front/back re toilets and sinks, regardless of where one is standing or sitting. Due to that, a toilet is never behind a sink. – Lambie Nov 28 '18 at 15:05
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Prepositions of place are not determined by where the viewer is, because that would simply lead to confusion from a multiplicity of subjective points of view.

Imagine if there were 5 people sitting in the room, each with a different angle of view to the bathroom. The location of the sink relative to the toilet would be different for each person. This would be a clumsy way to describe spatial relationships, and so it is standard to describe the locations of objects relative to each other. The side of the sink is adjacent to the side of the toilet. Therefore, the sink is next to the toilet.

  • It depends on what is being talked about. In bathrooms and rooms, things have layouts in terms of walls and floors. Technically, here, one would refer to a full-view or partial view or obstructed view. The sink is next to the toilet because bathroom toilets and sinks are placed up against walls or are described in terms of the walls and floors. One would not generally say 'behind' here. The back part of the toilet is up against the wall, so nothing is behind it. – Lambie Nov 27 '18 at 20:53
  • I can't quite tell if you are agreeing with me or disagreeing. – kandyman Nov 27 '18 at 20:58
  • It really doesn't matter where people are sitting in the room because in bathrooms, nothing is behind a toilet. Think about it. Unless the toilet is a free-standing affair in the middle of some room. The sink could be partially hidden, but it still doesn't merit saying the sink is behind the toilet. It is still beside the toilet. – Lambie Nov 27 '18 at 21:48
  • Yes but that would still leave the matter of “in front of the toilet” ambiguous. My point is that “in front of the toilet” would still not be from the perspective of the viewer in the other room, but the position relative to the toilet. But I think we seem to be agreeing on this. – kandyman Nov 27 '18 at 23:23
  • In front of the/a toilet is never ambiguous. All toilets have a back and front. – Lambie Nov 28 '18 at 15:09

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