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I'm a technical writer and I tend to use unambiguous words in my tech writing. I find that "left" and "right" (as in "left hand" and "right hand") are both words with other commonly used meanings, and worse, adjective meanings.

So, please help.

You know, many technical articles are written in English and read by many people around the world. I'm from China and I've seen some bad translations of English IT documentation since I've entered the industry. Using explicit words can save time in helping us understand those tech docs.

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What other meanings do these words have that could possibly lead to ambiguity in technical contexts? "Turn right" is pretty unambiguous; so is "left side". – Marthaª Nov 9 '11 at 1:01
@Marthaª, well.. right literally also means correct. Although ajdective vs noun can usually be easily recognized. – Unreason Nov 9 '11 at 1:04
In technical literature, don't use 'right' for affirmation, use 'correct'. – Mitch Nov 9 '11 at 1:22
Port and starboard don't quite mean left and right. If you are facing the stern of the ship, port is on your right and starboard to your left. – Peter Shor Nov 9 '11 at 2:55
Perhaps you could get more helpful answers if you could clarify just what the problem is with "left" and "right". It's true that "right" can also mean "correct", but if you are talking about the left side and the right side, the reader is unlikely to be confused. If that's really a worry, you can always say "right-hand side". Is that the issue or is there something more? – Jay Nov 9 '11 at 3:05
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I'm afraid the synonyms are more ambiguous, not less: dexter and sinister, when used in heraldry, actually mean the opposite of "left" and "right", i.e. while dexter is technically a synonym of right, it means the viewer's left, and conversely for sinister. Thus, if you said something like "the dexter part", apart from sounding very strange, you would have told your reader absolutely nothing useful about what side you meant.

Plus, sinister is so closely associated with its other possible meaning ("evil, ominous") that it would be distracting to find it used in a technical context.

Left and right remain your most unambiguous choices. If needed, you can add "hand" or "side" ("put tab A into slot B on the left side of the assembly").

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Well, dexter and sinister actually do mean "right" and "left" — else why does the prescription for the right lens of my glasses read O.D.? ("Also, the terms Oculus Dexter (right eye), Oculus Sinister (left eye), and Oculus Uterque (both eyes) are used in medicine, usually abbreviated OD, OS, and OU, respectively.") From the Wikipedia entry for Oculus. And that's not just when I'm looking in a mirror. – Robusto Nov 9 '11 at 1:46
Cannot edit my comment above. So I add a comment: "right lens" may mean "the right-side lens" or "the correct lens", so I think it ambiguous. – Jimm Chen Nov 9 '11 at 2:21
@Jimm: English does have explicit and commonly known words for "left" and "right". They are "left" and "right". – Jay Nov 9 '11 at 3:03
@Robusto初夢: I didn't say dexter and sinister don't mean right and left. It's just that the Latin-derived words are often used in contexts that define "right" and "left" differently than ordinary English. In both heraldry and optometry, they're defined from the point of view of the bearer/user, rather than the viewer. Thus, if you use dexter or sinister in a more mundane context, the reader has no idea which definition you have in mind. – Marthaª Nov 9 '11 at 3:47
@JimmChen, I'm afraid you'd be hard-pressed to find any common English words that don't have multiple meanings. Context is everything, and if you need to disambiguate, use -hand or side as Martha says. – Graham Snyder Nov 9 '11 at 9:55

I definitely would not use Latin sinister/dexter or nautical port/starboard in IT technical documentation.

Firstly these terms have different meanings due to point of view.

Medical terminology has a tradition of using Latin, and these are known terms that have been learnt.

Port/starboard is just going to confuse your reader, they have no place in IT documentation (unless you're documenting [aero]nautical software).

Without any examples, my general advice is to stick to left/right and make the context clear you don't mean remainder/correct.

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For technical documentation I'd go with "left-hand side" and "right-hand side" - terms that are both commonly understood and unambiguous.

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Of course, for IT folk you should always use an appropriate TLA where you can: LHS and RHS would be perfect! ;-) – Kramii Nov 9 '11 at 11:04

At issue, if you had language alone there is no way to explain to, let's say, aliens which side is left and which side is right.

Since there is, save the radioactive decay and rotation of particles within weak nuclear forces, nothing with broken symmetry. Unlike colors where people get the words from objects around them (yes all colors, all languages), there's variation here. Notably some cultures have south-hand / north-hand (as in the hand closest to the north direction) or mauka side / makai side (mountain side / ocean side) in Hawaiian.

Though, it's fine. Chinese has right and left, zuǒ and yòu as in the left side and right side of the person talking.

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Situs inversus people exist, but hence the specification of aliens. We do tend to have some dissymmetries in our body. – Tatarize Jul 2 at 23:36
I deleted my comment because I thought it was too snarky. I'm glad you answered it anyway. So we go to statistics. Statistically, the vast majority of people have their hearts on the left side. Also, 90% (or so) of people are right handed. We have to allow drawing pictures if we want to communicate with aliens. And we have, witness Voyager. voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/goldenrec1.html. We could also use optically active molecules to define left and right. – ab2 Jul 2 at 23:44
You really can't. You could say that. But if an alien didn't know where a human heart was or which molecule we were talking about. You can't after all describe a right-handed molecule form from a left-handed one. There's no implicit reason right should be right and left should be left. And there's nothing you can explain that makes one, one and the other the other. – Tatarize Jul 3 at 9:53

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