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I have encountered these expressions today, when I was describing a photo. People are lining up in the picture. I wanted to explain someone who is standing next to the person on the far left. And I started to wonder if there is any difference between 'the person second on the left' and 'the person second to the left'.

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Let's keep this simple. When looking at a picture, the idiomatic expression is:

second from the left. = Starting from the left count to the right.

By itself, second to the left does not establish a definitive location. A particular point of reference must be specifically identified or clearly understood.

Example:

Second to my left identifies me as the point of reference. Count to the left of me.

A similar problem arises with second on the left. The expression on the left generally implies a particular frame has been divided into two parts: left and right. By itself second on the left creates a mental conflict, since second does not complement on the left.

Again:

Second on my left identifies me as the dividing line between right and left, allowing the listener to infer accurately the person second to my left.

  • Yes; the terms are deictic. Second on the left of the meerkat. As we look at them. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 10 '15 at 17:49
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enter image description here

If the people in this photo (source: Usual Suspects film) are numbered 1 to 5 from left to right, I would describe number 2 as second on the left or second from the left. That is, he is second from the left hand side of the photo.

However, if you asked "Which one is dressed all in black?" you could reply "The man second to the left of number 4." In this case to indicates direction, that you should go leftwards from number 4.

  • 1
    If you said 'second to the left of number 4', that would suggest to me that he was on number 4's left. In fact he is on number 4's right. In this example I would always say the man in black is 'second from the left in the picture'. – WS2 Jan 10 '15 at 17:03
  • @WS2 It's true there's room for confusion. But in your example I would specify 'number 4's left' (or right, as may be), whereas my example is more neutral. It would work better if they were 5 trees, rather than people with left and right hands. – Mynamite Jan 10 '15 at 17:14
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I would say the person standing second from left.

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I would understand the phrases as follows:

Second from the left: starting at the left, moving towards the right, the second person in.

Second to the left: starting at the right, moving towards the left, the second person in.

In other words, second to the left = second from the right.

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