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Is it better to write "on the side" or "at the side"? I always thought that "on the side" was the correct form, but today I've seen the sentence:

The thorax is protected by the ribs at the sides.

And, in the same book,

The cheeks are on both sides of the face.

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The two statements are not comparable. Both are correct. Each uses at or on as appropriate. Protection is provided at; covering, on. –  Kris May 4 '12 at 0:14
    
See the results of this Google search of "ribs at the sides". Note all of the medical/anatomical references listed. I would say it is a convention in medical writing to use ribs at the sides instead of ribs on the sides (you get a very different results list if you search for that phrase). –  JLG May 4 '12 at 4:31
    
@Kris Thank you for your strict and concrete answer. –  jacek.ciach May 4 '12 at 10:30
    
@JLG: ----- Why? –  Kris May 4 '12 at 10:31
    
@Kris, I don't know the reason. Anything I would add to what I noted would be speculation. –  JLG May 4 '12 at 11:32
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4 Answers 4

When I see questions like this, I like to point out that this on-or-at dilemma plays out in other ways, not just with the word side. Both prepositions have a host of meanings, some overlapping, some not. Context is everything!

Sometimes swapping the preposition will cause a sharp change of meaning:

The children were at the table.
The children were on the table.

Please put my slippers on the foot of the bed.
Please put my slippers at the foot of the bed.

(In those examples, on means "atop", while at means "nearby".)

Other times, they can't be swapped; one preposition fits very naturally, while the other creates a seemingly nonsensical expression:

The mouse is on the mousepad.
?-The mouse is at the mousepad.

Stick the stamp on the envelope.
?-Stick the stamp at the envelope.

Dave and Janet are at the movies tonight.
?-Dave and Janet are on the movies tonight.

Dave and Janet should be here at ten o'clock.
?-Dave and Janet should be here on ten o'clock.

Then there are idiomatic uses, where one preposition is more fitting than the other:

During the last minute of the game, the fans were on edge. When the buzzer sounded, they finally felt at ease. (Or, if the other team won, the fans might have felt at a loss).

But sometimes, the difference between the two is minimal, because one of the several meanings of at (and on) is "in a particular place" (which is why you were having problems with the word "side"):

Draw a small 'X' on the center of the circle.
Draw a small 'X' at the center of the circle.

The fish seem to be biting on that side of the pond.
The fish seem to be biting at that side of the pond.

Which is better in those situations (such as Carter's excellent side of the road examples)? In those cases, it may just boil down to a matter of personal preference. Then again, there could be a clear-cut favorite, depending on the context:

During that difficult time, she was standing at the side of her brother.
During that difficult time, she was standing on the side of her brother.

Here, either on or at could be used, if the sentence is merely saying that she was physically located near her brother's left arm. If the sentence is meant to suggest emotional support, though, then that would be better conveyed with the idiom at his side. However, if there was a feud in progress, and the brother and sister were allies, then on his side would be the best way to express that.

Lastly, you would always use "on the side" is when alluding to a side dish:

At lunch, I ordered a turkey sandwich, with slaw on the side.

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Don't forget the idiomatic "on the side" for extracurricular, illicit activity: She makes a little money running numbers on the side. or He's got a wife and kids and a girl on the side. –  MT_Head May 4 '12 at 5:13
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Both are ok; the general rule is to use at when at is what you mean, and on when on is what you mean. Examples:

There are letters on the side of the box. – meaning: The side of the box has letters on it.
One dog lay in front, another at the side. – meaning: One dog was in front, one was beside something.

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What prevents me from interchanging at and on in the above examples? –  Kris May 4 '12 at 0:24
    
If you said "there are letters at the side of the box" it would mean they weren't on it, but next to it. –  Rory Alsop May 4 '12 at 0:27
    
@Rory Alsop Yes. Is that ungrammatical? –  Kris May 4 '12 at 2:11
    
It's grammatical, but it means something different. –  David Schwartz May 4 '12 at 2:15
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Both, "on the side," and, "at the side," are correct, so one can say either, but each has a slightly different meaning. One would use, "at the side," to refer to something that is located next to or beside something else. One would use, "on the side," to refer to something that is literally setting upon the side of that other thing.

Examples

"On the side"

  • The sticker is on the side of the car.
  • There is graffiti on the side of the wall.
  • There are feathers on the side of the duck.

"At the side"

  • There was a protrusion from the iceberg at the side.
  • There should be a chicken at the side of the road.

I'll be honest; I can't figure out many uses for the phrase, "at the side," that sound correct, but sometimes one could interchange, "at the side," and, "on the side," freely if one would like because of the similar meanings that the phrases take on with certain examples. For example, one could say, "there should be a chicken at the side of the road," and it'd be the same as saying, "there should be a chicken on the side of the road," because being at the side of a road and on the side of a road are pretty much the same things, but being on the side of a box and at the side of a box are not the same things because being on the side of a box implies that one is literally setting upon the side of the box while being at the side of a box implies that one is beside or next to the box.

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All that the OP has asked was: 'Which is correct?'. –  Kris May 4 '12 at 2:17
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On the side of the tour bus, which lies at the side of the road, turned on its side, the large letters proudly proclaim: "Reliable Coach Lines: Your Safety is Our Job #1".

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