Blog/Grammar tips
6 May 2022
4 min read

Tow the line or toe the line?

Tow the line or toe the line?

'Toe the line' refers to following the rules or obeying an authority. Yet, most people misspell this as 'tow the line'. 

This article will show you how to avoid making this error and the origins of this idiom. So, let's not waste any more time and get into it!

What Is the meaning of toe the line

'Toe the line' is about following the rules and doing the expected. In a way, it comes with the idea of obeying a higher authority and avoiding causing trouble. Here's an example sentence: 

Mary disagreed with this policy. However, she chose to toe the company line. 

In this example, 'toe the line' means to follow the rules set by the company. 

But, how does the misspelling occur? Well, 'toe the line' appeared because 'tow' and 'toe' are homophones, meaning they sound the same. On top of this, 'tow' is a common verb, whereas 'toe' is a noun. Hence, using 'tow' instead of 'toe' feels more natural. However, using 'tow the line' will always be wrong. 

Toe the line: The etymology

No one really knows how the phrase 'toe the line' came from. Yet, the earliest use seems to come from military life accounts. Soldiers, for example, would be needed to stand with their toes in line in order to show obedience and discipline. 

Occasionally, arguments get heated in the House of Commons. So, to stop members of different parties from lashing at one another, two red lines exist on the main floor. British MPs have to remain behind them during a speech. Other literal uses include children lining up, runners standing at the race line, or politicians standing in the British House of Commons. 

Regarding the athletic usage of the phrase, it appears to have created the idiom as we know it today. For example, in the Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan (1813), James Paulding seems to have used the phrase' toe the mark' figuratively:

He began to think it was high time to toe the mark.

Other examples of 'toe the…' appear to have a natural connection. During the 19th century, sailors prepared themselves to be punished by standing in line on wooden decked ships or 'toeing the line'. This is also known as 'toeing the crack'. On top of this, in a 1831 edition of The Edinburgh Literary Journal, there's another mentioning of the 'toe the line' phrase: 

"The matter, therefore, necessarily became rather serious; and the whole gang of us being sent for on the quarter-deck, we were ranged in a line, each with his toes at the edge of a plank, according to the orthodox fashion of these gregarious scoldings, technically called toe-the-line matches."

Remembering this story is important because it may help you avoid misspelling the phrase. So, if you're not really sure whether you should use 'tow the line' or 'toe the line', think of an image of a runner or children lining up in school. Plus, it makes more sense to remember the phrase this way.

Toe the line examples

Here are some examples of using 'toe the line' in a sentence: 

When I was a child, we had to toe the line. Our teacher made us stand in a line every morning and say we were present and accounted for. 

Our society requires us to toe the line. If we don't, we have to face the consequences. 

Let's see some examples in conversations now:

A conversion between a father and a daughter:

  • Daughter: Dad, you're always hard on me. The parents of my friends aren't as strict as you are. 
  • Father: Jemma, I'm sorry I'm strict. However, one day you will be thankful I made you toe the line. Besides, as long as you live in my house, you have to listen to what I say.

A conversion between an employee and his manager: 

  • Manager: Hello, Max. I called in today because reports are telling me that you violated the safety regulations. Is it true?
  • Employee: Well, yeah. Have a good day, and… back to work! I may have violated some rules. But, it was a necessity. 
  • Manager: I understand, but still, that's not acceptable. You should always follow the regulations as they're in place for our safety.

Other examples:

  • Stay with our team or toe the line.
  • Refusing to toe the line is a reason to get sacked. 
  • Sure, you may not like the company rules, but you have to toe the line. Otherwise, you'll have trouble. 
  • You have to toe the line, or you want to keep your job at the company.
  • The government employees disagree with the government, but they have to toe the line. If they don't, they will become jobless. 
  • As MPs, we should tow the line and always follow the party line. 

Tow the line definition

As previously mentioned, like other idiomatic phrases, there are many ways you can use the phrase to express the same or similar meaning. The idiom refers to:

  • Follow the rules
  • Perform as expected or do as expected
  • Do what they tell you or do as you are told

Conclusion: is it tow the line or toe the line?

Let's summarize the post:

  • Always the correct phrase will be to toe the line and NOT tow the line.
  • The idiom meaning is obeying an authority or following the rules.
  • ‘Tow the line’ is wrong and a complete misspelling. This is because 'toe' and 'tow' sound the same, so people get it wrong.
  • The phrase seems to originate from the action of standing in a line at school or at the starting line at a race. Think of it as getting close to the starting line without stepping over the designated mark. 

Last but not least, to remember the phrase, consider a runner waiting for the starting signal of an upcoming foot race. Now, if you need help with your content creation, content ideation, or spelling, feel free to reach out to us for a quote. We will be more than happy to help you master the English language and even become your free dictionary!

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