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In my book there is the text:

Chad climbed the familiar trail and higher where the plane had plowed through. He carefully arranged the sheets of metal in the form of a cross. No one in the air could mistake that for crash debris. It would be obvious someone had put them there on purpose. If searchers saw them, it wouldn't be long before they spotted the plane wreckage with the fresh grave off to one side and the little encampment fifty feet to the other side.

Can you explain to me why author was using to-the-side construction rather than on-the-side construction? It's matter because in the book I've stumble upon the text with on-the-side construction ("on" instead "to"):

"Back off from the mouthpiece a bit there, son. What's your location and situation?"
Chad was so excited he was shaking and couldn't slow his words. "We're in the valley on the other side of Bime!"

How I can understand when I need use "to" and when "on"?

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  • There's no real "meaning" to the choice. It's just become idiomatically established that if the context already includes preposition off AND we're introducing a second preposition, we usually go with off to one side. Jul 22, 2021 at 16:54
  • ...but see this NGram showing that if we're only using one preposition, we're much more likely to go with on. Maybe some people didn't like the juxtaposition of apparent "antonyms" off and on, I dunno. But it means nothing. Jul 22, 2021 at 16:59

1 Answer 1

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We use "on the side (of X)" to mean "on one of the sides of X". It's used with things that can be clearly divided into sides, like a political debate, a border, or the sides of a house. In this case, "on one side ... and on the other side" would mean the wreckage has precisely two sides, one with a grave, and the other with an encampment.

We use "to the side (of X)" to mean "set aside from X" or "slightly away from X", while not suggesting it has any actual sides. It gives the placement of something relative to the more significant place in focus, in this case, the placement of the grave and encampment relative to the plane wreckage, which are roughly in a straight line.

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