As she walked down the sidewalk, Leslie noticed a small kosher deli to her right.
As she walked down the sidewalk, Leslie noticed a small kosher deli on her right.
The only visual difference between these two sentences is the words to and on. But can you tell me how the two sentences differ in meaning?
Trick question—they don’t. Oh, it might be possible to argue that the word on implies a slightly closer proximity than the word to in this usage, but that’s a flimsy difference. Really, these two sentences mean the same thing.
It’s probably because on and to can be used interchangeably in a case like this that I see them so often mixed up in a similar case:
A narrow, weathered wooden wardrobe stood on the right of the room.
A narrow, weathered wooden wardrobe stood to the right of the room.
These two sentences do not mean the same thing. The first one implies that we are in a room, and a wardrobe is standing in the room on the right side, perhaps against the wall or something. The second sentence implies that there is a room, and outside the room on the right there is a wardrobe.
What changed? Why are on and to interchangeable in our first example, but not in our second? The difference is the object of the preposition. In other words, what are these objects located to the right of?
In our first example, the deli is to the right of Leslie—a person, a thing. In our second example, the wardrobe is on (or to) the right of the room—a place, a location in its own right. Because there’s little to no chance that a deli would be located on Leslie’s person, on and to can both be used to mean beside or somewhere on that side of. Because the room could easily contain the wardrobe, however, we have to be more specific—on the right means it is located inside the boundaries of the room, while to the right means it is located outside those boundaries.
Note that Leslie could serve as a location. For instance:
The purse hung on Leslie’s right.
The purse hung to Leslie’s right.
The second sentence clearly means that the purse is hanging on something beside Leslie, whereas the first sentence is a little confusing—is the purse hanging on Leslie’s right shoulder, or is it hanging on a peg on the wall to her right? Usually, when you use on to indicate that an object is located within the boundaries of a location, you’ll want to be more specific:
The purse hung on Leslie’s right shoulder.
Bam. Clear as can be. Even our earlier example can be made clearer this way:
A narrow, weathered wooden wardrobe stood on the right side of the room.
Much clearer, no? A little specificity can go a long way. But in the long run, just remember: when denoting location, on and to cannot be used interchangeably if they are relative to a place.