Posted by: Jack Henry | February 13, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Sides

Dear Editrix,

An article I read today used “lower right-hand side of the tablet” instead of “lower right side of the tablet.” I wondered whether the addition of the word “hand” is to clarify the intended meaning of the word “right.” It can mean the opposite of “left,” or it can mean “correct.” I have seen this ambiguity used countless times to (attempted) comic effect in political discussions.

I can see this question coming up in documentation instructing users where to look for a certain button or a menu to click. What’s the official word on this?

Mark in Allen

Dear Mark,

I did some digging, but I didn’t have much luck finding anything “official.” My first thought was that “right side” and “left side” are enough information to give people to figure out where to look for something, and the minimalist in me would say the same. But then I read a few things that reflected your logic: that because “right” can also mean “correct,” sometimes people say “right-hand side” to clarify that they are talking about the side of the paper or tablet or book that your right hand is on—not that there might be a correct side and that’s the side you should be on.

I also saw an argument stating that “left-hand side” is less ambiguous than just saying “left side.” In this case, the gentleman said that because the word “left” is the past participle of “leave,” you might think that someone saying “the left side” is talking about “the abandoned side.” That seems a little far-fetched to me, especially if you are talking about directions. I don’t know how many people would misinterpret the instructions to “sign at the bottom left side of the paper,” and start looking for the bottom abandoned side of the paper. If that were the case, you may just want to set that paper-signer free to go chase butterflies.

So, to answer your question, in our documentation I would recommend that people stick with “right-side” and “left-side,” since the topic is usually clear, and people have a screen or receipt or document in front of them to look at. In conversation, however, or if you are writing a novel, I think “right-hand side” and “left-hand side” are perfectly good ways to communicate and avoid ambiguity.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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