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Suppose I have a box in front of me. I have labeled the front, rear, left and right sides of the box (overhead view). Each side has two handles, labeled A through H.

     A        B
 ------------------
 |l     rear     r|
H|e              i|C
 |f              g|
G|t              h|D
 |      front    t|
 ------------------
     F        E

How do I refer to each handle by its position with a short but precise phrase? Assuming that box is always in front of me like this -- e.g., the left side is always unambiguously on the left.

For example, handle G is on the left side, and of the two handles on the left side (H and G) it is the further front one. So is it the "left-front" handle, or the "front-left" handle?

Put another way, does "front-left" refer to position F or position G?

  • It doesn't really matter. In the case of a car you can say either the nearside-front wheel or the front-nearside wheel. In Britain that means the front-left or left-front. Either is acceptable. – WS2 Sep 2 '15 at 19:46
  • The phrase 'furthest front handle' makes no sense when looking at your diagram. Maybe you should label the handles A,B,C,D, etc. – chasly from UK Sep 2 '15 at 19:50
  • @WS2 - Your comment doesn't work. Firstly it is country dependent and secondly 'nearside' refers to nearness to the kerb or the edge of the road. There is no nearside on a box unless it has wheels and is travelling along the highway. – chasly from UK Sep 2 '15 at 19:53
  • @chaslyfromUK: I've updated to clarify the question. The example singles out handle G, which is on the left side of the box and is closer to the front of the box than the other handle on the left side (H). – mgiuffrida Sep 2 '15 at 19:57
  • @WS2: In this case, there are not four wheels, there are 8. So "nearside-front" and "front-nearside" are ambiguous. – mgiuffrida Sep 2 '15 at 19:58
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I know of no unambiguous way in English to refer to any single handle out of the eight you’ve indicated on your ASCII box without resorting to circumlocutions.

Front-left and left-front are both inherently ambiguous, and I am not aware of anyone distinguishing them in any meaningful way.

The simplest and least invasive rephrasing I can think of would be to include the name of the side (as a noun, not as part of a compound adjective) as well as the relative position of the handle in relation to its neighbour; for example, handle F would be the left handle on the front (side) and handle G would be the front handle on the left(-hand side).

That is quite unambiguous, at least to me, and though it is a rephrasing and a circumlocution, I don’t think it’s an unduly disruptive one in most contexts.

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I would say that the phrase 'front-left' in that situation is completely ambiguous.

The reason is that a box does not have hands. An observer will have no option but to relate to their own point of view.

If I am standing at the back of the box and facing it, front-left means E.

If I stand at the front of the box and face it, front-left means F.

The same sort of problem occurs with 'front left'.

If the box is a bomb then do not use any of these labels to describe how to defuse it. The interpretation would be subjective and dangerous.

  • Good point. Suppose the sides are unambiguously marked as front, left, etc. You said "If I stand at the front of the box and face it, front-left means F." Would G then be "left-front"? – mgiuffrida Sep 2 '15 at 20:17
  • If you’re standing at the back of the box and facing it (and the sides aren’t unambiguously marked), surely front-left would be B? E would be rear-left. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 2 '15 at 20:28
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - That's exactly why I say don't use this terminology if it is in the least important. We're disagreeing even though I say it's meaningless! I assumed that the front was marked as front. You can unambiguously call something 'the front'. You cannot unambiguously describe left and right. This is why Port and Starboard are used on boats - it removes all ambiguity. – chasly from UK Sep 2 '15 at 20:43
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The distinction you are looking for does not exist, however, if you include both terms within the same context, your readers may intuit your meaning. If you want to be completely sure no misunderstandings occur, fight the urge to put it so succinctly. Simply write it out:

The right handle on the front side vs. the front handle on the left side.

or explain what you mean:

The right handle on the front side (henceforth named the front-right), vs. the front handle on the left side (henceforth named the left-front).

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     A        B
 ------------------
 |l     rear     r|
H|e              i|C
 |f              g|
G|t              h|D
 |      front    t|
 ------------------
     F        E

G = lower left

H = upper left

A = top left

B = top right

C = right upper etc.

People might not understand what you mean, though, without a legend or diagram.

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right-rear and left-rear are far more common than rear-right and rear-left.

The same is true with right-front and left-front.

P.S. The other handles are unnecessary :)

  • So what does that mean in relation to the question? Which, if either, would be used to unambiguously refer to handle F, but not G (or to handle G, but not F)? Simply saying that the other handles are unnecessary is not answering the question, which is based on the (presumably real, in the asker’s actual context) premise that they are necessary. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 2 '15 at 20:02
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    Although this bears no relation to the question, I actually find this really interesting. I've always said "front right" and "front left" but apparently that's quite uncommon. – mgiuffrida Sep 2 '15 at 21:59
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet: The OP should rotate the box clockwise when he needs to refer to the handles on side panels, so that the left side becomes the rear panel and the right side becomes the front-panel. It's a two-step process. We could prefix the rotated one with an R R(front-left) to signify rotation-mode-addressing. – TRomano Sep 2 '15 at 22:07

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