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I read the following sentence somewhere:

Also keep an eye out for shy but curious harbor seals, which have been known to bob in the waters just out to sea, watching people as they walk along the shoreline.

Just wondering why it is "just out to sea"? What does it exactly mean? Why not "just out of sea"? Is there any other ways to say the same?

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3 Answers 3

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We use the word "to" to indicate a direction or progress in a direction. We say "just to your left" or "far to the north", to indicate places in those directions. "Just out to sea", then, means a little way in that direction from the water's edge.

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This makes much better sense now! My high school English teacher didn't do a job as good. –  Problemania Jan 29 '12 at 4:23

If they bobbed just out of [the] sea they would not be in the sea, in fact without the the phrase seems grammatically incorrect.

Out to sea means they are in or on the water. Just out to sea means they are not far off the coast.

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Are there any other usage of form "<preposition> to <noun/pronoun>" that means not far from some place? –  Problemania Jan 28 '12 at 23:24
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@user6076 — It is the use of just as an adverb to mean "by a narrow margin" that gives the phrase just out to sea the meaning not far from the coast. Out to sea means on or in the sea, and gives no indication how far out you are. –  Matt Эллен Jan 29 '12 at 0:09
    
@user6076 — as another example you can say "out of town" to mean not in town, however no distance from town is given. If you say something is "just out of town" that means it is not in town, but very close to town. –  Matt Эллен Jan 29 '12 at 0:15
    
Why it is the preposition "of" in "out of town" but "to" in "out to sea"? "Of" seems more natural to me. English is my second language. –  Problemania Jan 29 '12 at 1:04
    
@user6076 — I'm not 100% sure why we use of and to in these circumstances, it's just how we talk about these things. With out of town we are indicating a distance from somewhere as in the first definition, but no direction. With out to sea we are indicating a direction as in the second definition, but no distance. –  Matt Эллен Jan 29 '12 at 21:06

I have not encountered that precise usage before. You would set or put out to sea meaning leave the harbour.
So the seals are just where you would be had you just set/put out to sea.

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I don't see anything "weird" here, nor do 10,000 writers indexed in Google Books for "just out to sea". If you're on the shoreline, a lot of things are either to[wards] sea or land. Just because you only put out to sea (not put at sea) doesn't constrain this usage. –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 18:09
    
I'd say simply put to sea. It's also the more common variant according to ngrams. –  z7sg Ѫ Jan 28 '12 at 20:46
    
I would say set out to sea, actually... –  Karl Knechtel Jan 29 '12 at 13:36
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@FumbleFingers pls see update –  mplungjan Jan 29 '12 at 19:55

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