right and left or left and right

This page of the textbook just keeps on giving. It is on what the authors call ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I am not convinced that those are the best terms. It says “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. I have blogged about this page twice before. The first time I picked up about combinations of colours. After the class, I researched on Google Ngrams and found that ‘black and’ is most followed by white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey and green. Further, ‘black and white’ is most followed by photographs, stripes and marble (among and/or, is/are and in/of/on).

The second time I picked up about the textbook saying “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. That simply isn’t true. Google Ngrams shows that ‘white and black’ is used, though, obviously, much less than ‘black and white’. I researched each of the pairs they give and found that most of them can be reversed – butter and bread and breakfast and bed being the two exceptions (those two are recorded, but are very, very rare). I concluded “If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.”

The first section of the activity gives two sets of eight words in random order, the task being to pair and order them with and. The second gives seven words and or, the task being to write a word pairing with the given word. The first is ‘right or ____’. Half of the students wrote left and half wrote wrong. Both are correct, but left is more common and, indeed, is the answer given. So do we say right or left or left or right, and, for that matter right and left or left and right)?

Google Ngrams shows a decline in the use of right and left and right or left. By itself, that is not unusual: as more words enter the language, any given word’s share of the total declines. The decline in right or left is gradual and might simply be explained in this way, but the decline in right and left is much steeper. At the same time left or right has increased slightly and left and right considerably. The latter two overtook the former two in the mid-1980s. So what has caused the rise of left and right in particular? Searching for ‘right and left *’, shows sides, of, hand, and, in, to, wings, as, with and by. Of these, most show a gradual decline, but right and left of shows a very steep decline. Searching for ‘right and left of *’ shows a similar decline in right and left of the. Google Ngrams doesn’t allow me to search for ‘right and left of the *’ (it is limited to four words and an asterisk), but searching for ‘and left of the *’ shows a moderate decline for road and slight declines for entrance, central, main, enemy, door, centre, altar, line and town. So I think it’s just a lot of small declines adding up to a big decline. Similarly, ‘right or left’ is followed by of, side, hand, to, as, and, in, at, by and flank, with a moderate decline for of and a slight decline for the rest.

Searching for ‘left and right *’, though, shows a steady increase in left and right of over 150 years, a sharp increase in left and right sides over 100 years, and a phenomenal increase in left and right margins since the late 1970s. The latter can be explained by desktop publishing and the fact that English is written left-to-right, but I can’t think of any reason why left and right of and left and right sides would grow so significantly over right and left of and right and left sides. Similarly, searching for ‘left or right *’ shows a significant increase for left and right of, left or right side and left or right to. (Here is all of those on top of each other.)

Even allowing for the modern technology-driven left and right margins, there has been a significant shift from right and/or left to left and/or right across 120 years in general and the last 40 in particular. I can’t think of any reason why. Will my left-handed sister who reads my blog please not suggest that it’s got anything too do with handedness?


2 thoughts on “right and left or left and right

  1. If that was a major factor, I would expect a gradual change FROM ‘left and/or right’ TO ‘right and/or left’, with the growth in importance of US English. Even without margins, the change is in the other direction.


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