This question arose in the context of referring to locations in a figure, e.g.:

A dot is added to the left(-hand) side of the diagram.

What is the difference in meaning (if there is one)? What is the difference in style? What does sound more elegant?

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    My gut feeling tells me that the left side depends on your viewpoint, while the left-hand side is inherent to the object you're describing. That is, the diagram itself has a left-hand size, and if you turn the page around, its left-hand side is now on its right side. But I could be totally off. – Mr Lister Oct 9 '12 at 9:08
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    There is already an answer which addresses this, but I'm unsure about whether the question should be treated as a duplicate. – Andrew Leach Oct 9 '12 at 9:35
  • Oh, I missed this question; it really is similar. But still, it does not answer my question, at least not the specific scenario I describe. – fbeck Oct 9 '12 at 14:16

Right and left are variable directions. Right-handed and left-handed are fixed attributes.

Right and left are indications of orientation based on the viewer's current position.

The frame of that painting is cracked on the left . (But when viewed from the back, it is broken on the right.)
The tree on the left must come down. (But where are you standing when you give this command?)

I am left-handed. Whether I am viewed from the front or back, my left hand is always the same. (I think that right-handed people may have a similar experience.) Clothing and things that are based on human anatomy maintain their left-hand/right-hand orientation no matter how you rotate them.

Additionally, certain objects that are dependent on human control are given a handedness, such as cars and boats. The left front tire is the one on the driver's left hand side in front of his position when driving. Even when the driver walks around the car, the left[-hand] front tire is fixed in that spot, even though it may be on the left or right of the driver as he looks at it from various vantage points.

Similarly, the starboard side of the ship is to the captain's right when she is on the bridge, facing the prow. When she is on the prow, facing the bridge, starboard is still on the boat's right, even though it is on the captain's left.

Right-hand screw threads always turn in the same direction. When looking at the axis of the threaded object, turning it clockwise (top moves toward viewer's right hand) the threaded object moves away.

Finally, in the theater, sides are locked in. Stage left is to the actor's left side when he is facing the audience. If he turns his back to the audience, the stage's left-hand side does not shift, even though it is now on the actor's right. Move to your left is not necessarily the same as move stage left. Both the actor and the stage carry their handedness with them and instructions need to be clear which is intended.

(Since all the world's a stage, and actors come and go, I think stage directions will usually prevail.)

  • Thanks, this clarifies things! But I'm still not sure which variant I should use in the above example. You could argue that it is the left-hand side of the diagram, to be independent of the viewpoint. But the diagram cannot be looked at from different viewpoints (at least it makes no sense) so that "hand" might be omitted. – fbeck Oct 9 '12 at 14:13
  • I think left side, rather than left-hand side is better. If the page were inverted, you would want to focus on the right side, not the left-hand side which is the viewer's side, not the image's side. – bib Oct 9 '12 at 15:06
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    But in the example it is the left-hand side of the diagram, not of the viewer. – fbeck Oct 9 '12 at 15:11
  • Draw a pie chart with four labeled quarters. Look at the upper left quadrant. Now rotate the chart 90 degrees. Look at the upper left quadrant. It changes. There is no handedness to the diagram, only to the viewer. – bib Oct 9 '12 at 15:25

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