“On line” vs. “In line”: Which Do You Say?

Some people find it easy to tell if someone is from New York or New Jersey the moment they meet them—all they have to do is start chatting! And if the New Yorker’s accent isn’t an immediate giveaway, the phrase on line usually is.

In many states across the country, it’s all the same: people stand in line at the grocery store, wait in line at the pharmacy, and get in line for school drop-off. But certain East Coasters don’t do any of these things in line and instead only wait on lines.

Which of these different prepositions is correct in this phrase? Well, both phrases are regionalisms … but let’s take a closer look.

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What does line mean?

As a noun, the word line has many meanings, including “a mark or stroke long in proportion that’s drawn on a surface,” as well as “a row or series” of something. In mathematics, it can also be defined as “a continuous extent of length, straight or curved, without breadth or thickness; the trace of a moving point.”

Line can refer to a range of things, from “wrinkles” and “a property border” to the “verse in a poem or words for an actor to memorize.” Line also means “a number of persons standing one behind the other and waiting their turns at or for something; queue,” which is the definition most relevant to this debate.

As a verb, line can refer to taking a position in a line, like lining up. In baseball it can mean to hit a line drive or to line out.

Line was first recorded before 1000 and develops from the Middle English word line or ligne, meaning “cord, rope, stroke, series, guiding rule.” Via French, line is ultimately derived from the Latin word līneus, which means “flaxen” and originally applied to string.

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Is there a difference between on and in?

On and in in this case are both prepositions or words used before the noun line to express a spatial relationship. On as a preposition is defined as “to be or remain supported by or suspended from” or “to be attached to or unified with.” For example: I put the box on the table and hung the sign on the door.

In on the other hand as a preposition is used “to indicate inclusion within a space, a place, or limits.” Or, it can also be used “to indicate inclusion within something more abstract “or “during a certain time.” For example: she goes skiing in the winter or he works in pharmaceutical sales. In can also be used to indicate purpose (in honor of the event), motion or direction (she walked in the house), and  transition from one state to the other (break in half).

Both in line and on line may sound correct to us because both on and in form unique words when combined with line. Online can be used when something is operating from or connected to a computer or is done through a computer, like online shopping. Then there’s in-line skate, which is a roller skate that typically has four wheels in a straight line similar to an ice-skate’s blade.

But when it comes down to waiting on line versus in line, the distinction is regional. According to Google Ngram, in line is used considerably more often than on line. In the 2003, the Harvard Dialect Survey reported 88 percent of respondents nationwide use in line. In New York, on line and “both sound equally good” were popular responses as well (24 percent and 18 percent, respectively), and in line dipped to 57 percent.

Just like people from different regions debate their preferences for tennis shoes or sneakers, pop or soda, y’all or you guys, garbage can or trash can, we have regionalisms to thank for on line and in line. Neither one is correct or incorrect.

No matter which you say, the other option sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Or is it “ludicrous”? Find out the difference between these two words here!

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