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I'm having trouble putting the difference in meaning between "point to" and "point at" into words and my Longman dictionary isn't helping, I'm afraid.

I'm not a native speaker, but I feel there is a definite difference; however the only thing I can say is that 'point at' feels more aggressive whereas 'point to' feels more casual. Can anyone help?

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That is certainly the difference between throw to and throw at (or run to and run at); if you throw something to John, you want him to catch it, but if you throw something at John, you want to hit him. However, I don't think this distinction extends to point. My feeling as a native speaker is that if there's any difference, it's not in the dimension of aggressiveness. –  Peter Shor Nov 29 '12 at 16:03
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Depends on that you mean by point. Note that "point: aim something" is point at, whereas "point: suggest something is true" is point to. ldoceonline.com/dictionary/point_2 –  Alex B. Nov 29 '12 at 17:11
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"The prepositions at and to [after 'point' - Alex B.] can have very similar meanings, although to tends to be used in more abstract contexts, such as drawing attention to a particular problem or fact" (A Valency Dictionary of English, 2004). –  Alex B. Nov 29 '12 at 17:22
    
cf. "Paralympics dancer: ‘I remember being pointed at . . . ’" (The Times, Sept. 1, 2012) vs. "Was he pointing to heaven or merely to rain clouds? Andy Murray’s victory gesture after his first win at Wimbledon prompted speculation after he refused to explain its meaning" i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02259/… –  Alex B. Nov 29 '12 at 17:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I would say point at and point to are often interchangeable in real life.

As an effort to distinguish between them, I do think point at has a more aggressive and accusing feeling while point to merely shows a direction. In other words, when you point at something, you are directly indicating it; when you point to something, you are simply pointing in its direction or showing the way to it.

Last but not least, there's one exception where you point your gun at something but not to something.

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I wonder if you could "point your gun to the door" if you indicate direction with your gun. (reckless, I know.) –  SF. Nov 29 '12 at 16:51

Point to implies supplying a direction to someone/something. E.g., for a reference, I would point you to the HR department.

Point at is a physical gesture directing an object, e.g. a finger, directly at another object.

For the comment 'Point my gun to the door', this implies that you are giving your gun directions to find the door. To supply the direction using the gun you would use 'Point to the door with my gun'.

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First we need to narrow down the mode of the preposition "to", among others:

  1. directional indicator == towards
  2. infinitive indicator - e.g., he came to eat
  3. range indicator == till - e.g., from top to bottom
  4. fulfillment indicator - there are 2.64 litres to a US gallon.
  5. relationship indicator - who is she to you? My clock is synchronised to hers.

etc.

e.g.

  • He pointed the man to the door, when the man asked him for the exit.
  • He pointed the gun to(wards) the door, when the man knocked.
  • He pointed the gun to close the door.

Whereas, preposition "at" is a focus indicator. e.g.,

  • He pointed the gun at the door.
  • The world will end at noon.

Let us compare the modes:

  • She threw the ball to him. (She meant to give the ball to him)
  • She threw the ball at him. (She did not mean to give him the ball but to use it as a projectile onto him).

  • He directed the man to the door.

  • He directed the gun at the door.

  • He redirected his aide to close the door.

  • He redirected his butt to close the door.

Therefore, we should not place the cart before the horse. We don't decide the differences between styles of chopsticks but discover the food we would be eating to use the appropriate style of chopsticks.

In applying Mathematics to Engineering, rather than asking repeatedly the difference between Sine, Cosine and Tangent, we discover the available parameters and the required results, and then look into the available features to then decide which provides features that can be most effectively deployed.

Similarly, here, we should first discover the mode of indirection we wish to project and then see which of the modes are available for us to apply appropriately.

There is not a singular definition of "to" but a spectrum of modes (not disregarding usage as an adverb). Depending on the mode you intend, you may use one of the modes of "to" or "at", and there may be overlap in the various modes across the spectrum of the two prepositions.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/to

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/at

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The terms "directional indicator" and "focus indicator" seem particularly useful when one wants a more technical explanation rather than a 'sample' situation. But I wasn't sure what you meant as 'mode', since I'm more used to the term being applied to verbs. Would it be a synonym of 'function'? –  Sara Costa Dec 4 '12 at 13:59

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