Getting there…or not
One of the writer’s tools the English language offers that enriches our prose and poetry is also, apparently, one of the most confusing: prepositions. Understandably, those for whom English is a second language find the nuances that distinguish one preposition’s meaning from another confusing; but it seems we native speakers also can have problems. I suspect some of that arises from regional colloquialisms and speech forms, but as writers we need to get past the way we’re used to hearing words used and fix on what they really mean.
One of the common errors I encounter in manuscripts is the confusion of at, to, and toward. A character will “glance to” another character. They will “walk toward the door and leave the room.”
The word to means “expressing motion in the direction of.” Toward also means “in the direction of.” The difference that requires you take care which you use lies in a nuance.
When you say someone goes to a place, the implication is that they not only moved in that direction but arrived there. Toward, on the other hand, implies that arrival doesn’t happen. “I was going toward the door when the phone rang.” When you read that, note how your brain automatically registers that your progress toward the door was halted by the ringing phone.
So, saying a character is going toward the door when they will actually be leaving the room is incorrect usage. You need to, because otherwise the reader will experience a tiny jolt without realizing why. Their unconscious is expecting one thing while the reality tells them something else.
By the same token, at means “expressing arrival or location in a particular place or position.” More important, however, is that English speakers have developed specific nuances for the phrases “look at” and “look to.” When we say we “look to” someone, we mean that we expect them to perform some act on our behalf: “He looked to the government to make sure he was safe.” When we’re talking about seeing someone, we look at them.
Just to further confuse the issue, we can also “look toward” someone. However, the suggestion that the act of looking isn’t completed holds here as well. “She looked toward John” carries a nuance of impermanence–she glanced at him but then moved on to looking at something else.
It’s precisely the subtleties of word meanings in English that make it one of the richest languages for writing in the world–and the most difficult to master. That very wealth, however, is why it isn’t enough to just look up a synonym for a word in a thesaurus and pick the one that looks cool. You need to understand precisely what each of those words not only means but implies. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”