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Is there a standard convention for using right and left when describing a person? Should it always be from the perspective of the person being described?

For example, when describing a flat object:

There was a ketchup stain on the right side of the painting.

This sentence is using "right side" from the perspective of someone looking at the painting.

For non-flat objects:

There was a bright, hot-pink streak on the right side of the car.

This is strange to me. It could go either way, since the car has a "front" and "back", it also has a "left" and "right", so the hot-pink streak could be on the right side from the car's perspective, or the right side from the viewers perspective.

The same applies to people:

He was an older man with a huge, curved scar dominating the right side of his face.

Does this mean that, from his perspective, the scar is on his right side, or his left side?

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    Would your right hand be referred to as your left hand from a different perspective? – user66974 May 16 '15 at 21:13
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    What do you call the pirate who put his right hand down a shark's throat? Lefty. Did you hear the one about the guy who got his left hand and foot bitten off by the same alligator? Don't worry though, he's all right now. – Patrick M May 16 '15 at 23:38
  • Right and left are difficult terms; they refer to the human body and are projected in different ways. Details are available in Fillmore's Deixis Lectures. Specifically, left and right are discussed in the second lecture ("Space"), though it's probly a good idea to read the introductory lecture ("May We Come In?") first, to see what it's all about. They're quite interesting, and classic linguistics. – John Lawler May 17 '15 at 16:09
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If you were facing someone and asked them to extend their left hand (i.e the one to your right), would you expect them to reach out with the hand to your left? If not, you have answered your own question.

But things are different with inanimate objects: with the painting, references to viewpoint (and hence any mention of handedness) relate to the observer. Though it should be noted that if you are describing an attribute of an animate object depicted in a painting, its own viewpoint will still supersede yours when it comes to distinguishing left from right.

As far as a car is concerned, the handedness convention assumes the viewpoint of someone who is facing forward in the car (i.e. in the direction of normal travel).

  • Thank you, I guess it is mostly just that the face doesn't have a "handedness" to it that makes it seem kind of ambiguous to me. – StoicJester May 16 '15 at 21:40
  • If the discussion were about a motor vehicle, I'd expect the side to be referred to as "driver's side" or "passenger side". – nhgrif May 17 '15 at 19:48
  • As a sailor, to avoid confusion I would always use Port and Starboard even in a motor vehicle whenever I had reason to expect that the listener would comprehend. – Pieter Geerkens May 17 '15 at 20:36
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There are two specific, dedicated terms of art specifically introduced to resolve this ambiguity:

Proper right

and

Proper left

They mean "right" and "left" as the figure in the painting would see them.

Davinci's Mona Lisa
image source: wikiart.com

Thus, the Mona Lisa's proper right hand is folded over her proper left arm, because that's how she would describe herself, if she could talk.

For the sake of an authoritative reference, here is an excerpt from page 34 of Save Outdoor Sculpture! Volunteer Handbook:

For figurative works, use the abbreviations PR (proper right) and PL (proper left) to indicate the right or left side of the statue from the perspective of the statue (i.e., your right or left side if you were positioned on the base facing in the same direction as the statue).

The pamphlet is produced by "Save Outdoor Sculpture!" ("SOS!"), a joint project of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property.

  • Proper right and proper left : en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proper_right – user66974 May 16 '15 at 21:18
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    Thanks Josh. I stole a reference / citation from that Wikipedia article to for the sake of having and authority to quote in my answer. – Dan Bron May 16 '15 at 21:20
4

Stage left. Stage right. On your left. On your right. As viewed from the front. Left and right, other than dates, are the most perplexing. The navies of the world solved it with starboard and port. I like north-south, east-west when I can use it. There's also passenger side. The art world, I see from the above, solved it with "proper".

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    'Passenger side' works if everyone in the conversation drives on the same side of the road. So if all the speakers are American, 'passenger side' will mean the right-hand side of the car for someone facing forward in it; but in Britain or Japan, 'passenger side' will mean the left-hand side of the car. So you have to be sure your audience shares your basic assumption in order to avoid a misunderstanding arising. – Erik Kowal May 16 '15 at 21:39
  • @ErikKowal 'passenger side' of a car always refers to the side of the vehicle without the steering wheel, no matter what nation you're in or what side of the road you drive on. If you're trying to describe the car in even more specific detail, you should say something like "passenger side or a left-hand drive car" (the steering wheel is on the left-hand side of the car if we are sitting in it looking forward, and we're talking about the side of the car without the steering wheel). – nhgrif May 17 '15 at 19:38
  • If I were talking about the "passenger side" of a U.S. Postal Service truck, which drives on right-hand drive roads (and for that matter, basically never has a passenger), I'm talking about the left-side of the vehicle (if we're sitting in it looking forward), because the steering wheel is on the right-side of the vehicle. It is a right-hand drive vehicle. – nhgrif May 17 '15 at 19:40
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There are standard conventions in anatomy, and in computer graphics, and there are likely many other naming methods in other industries. Which standard you use should depend on the subject and the context.

There are many different correct answers to your question.

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