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This context comes from the book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"

"Uncle Vernon was pointing at what looked like a large rock way out to sea. Perched on top of the rock was the most miserable little shack you could imagine.

"way"

b. very far: they're way up the mountain.(source:Collins English Dictionary)

out"

"4. adverb, adjective far away. The ship was out at sea; He went out to India.*(source: Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary)

"to" prep

  1. against; upon; onto: put your ear to the wall.

This sentence would make perfect sense to me if it was "way out at sea" or "way out on sea"

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M-W provides this definition of "to":

—used as a function word to indicate direction
// a mile to the south
// turned his back to the door
// a tendency to silliness

Just as something can be located "a mile to the south" (i.e., a mile in that direction), it can also be located "way out to sea" (i.e., way out in that direction).

Yes, the author could also have written "way out at sea" or "way out on the sea". (I added a definite article in the second phrase.)

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  • Hmm, so the definition you provided essentialy means “toward” so if I supplant the words of the sentence it would be “very far away towards the sea”. Wouldn’t this convey a meaning that the large rock wasn’t at sea but somwhere on land? When you say “I go toward NY” it doen’t neccesarily mean that this is my destination but my trip can end in some place that is on the way there. Can you elaborate on that? Also why did you add the article with the preposition “on”? Sorry I know it’s alot but I’m trying to understand it:) Aug 26, 2022 at 19:13
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    @StaticBounce No problem! "To" and "toward" are similar in meaning but not exactly the same, so you can't always simply replace one with the other. As for the definite article, while "at sea" is acceptable, I don't find "on sea" to be idiomatic. (I speak Northeast AmE; people who speak other dialects might differ.) Aug 26, 2022 at 19:20
  • So, If I stood with another person just on the outside of my town (outside the boundry of my town) and that person asked me “where is your house” Can I answer “It’s 3 miles to the town”? It’s essentialy the same situation as the one in question only sea is suplanted with town and the rock is my house. Aug 26, 2022 at 19:30
  • No, that would not be a normal answer. "It's 3 miles to the town" would be fine to express how far away you are from the town, but not if "it" refers to a house. "(Away) from the town" or "outside of the town" would be better.
    – nschneid
    Aug 26, 2022 at 22:41
  • I suspect "out to sea" (no definite article) is an idiomatic expression for expressing a distance from the nearest coast. A lot of uses of prepositions have to be learned with particular nouns.
    – nschneid
    Aug 26, 2022 at 22:45

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