Idiom Tips: Tow the Line or Toe the Line?
  • 3-minute read
  • 10th March 2020

Idiom Tips: Tow the Line or Toe the Line?

To “toe the line” means to follow the rules or obey an authority. However, people often misspell this phrase as “tow the line.” So, how can you avoid this error? And where does this idiom come from? Let’s take a look.

What Does “Toe the Line” Mean?

To “toe the line” is to follow the rules or do the expected thing. It often has a sense of obeying an authority so as not to cause trouble:

Sarah didn’t agree with the policy, but she decided to toe the company line.

Here, “toe the company line” means “follow the company’s rules.”

The misspelling “tow the line” emerged because “toe” and “tow” are homophones. In addition, “tow” is a familiar verb, while “toe” is usually a noun, so “tow” may seem more natural. But “tow the line” is always wrong.

The Etymology of the Phrase

No one knows quite where the phrase “toe the line” originally comes from. Some of the earliest uses come from accounts of life in the military, where soldiers would literally be required to stand with their toes up to the line.

Other similarly literal uses may have included children lining up in school, politicians in the British House of Commons, and runners standing at the starting line of a race (i.e., to stand with your toes up to the starting line).

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The line you should 'toe'.
The line you should “toe.”

This final athletic usage seems to have given rise to the idiom we know today. In particular, James Paulding used the similar phrase “toe the mark” figuratively in The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan (1813), which contains the line:

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

It’s worth remembering this origin story, as it can help you spell the phrase correctly. For instance, if you’re not sure whether to write “toe the line” or “tow the line,” you can picture a sprinter at the starting line of a race!

Summary: Toe the Line or Tow the Line?

To summarize what we’ve said in this post so far:

  • The correct version of this phrase is always toe the line.
  • The phrase means “follow the rules or obey an authority.”
  • “Tow the line” is a misspelling based on “toe” and “tow” sounding the same, but “tow the line” is always an error.
  • The phrase comes from the idea of standing at the starting line before a race (i.e., getting as close as possible without overstepping the mark).

To remember this phrase, then, just think of a sprinter at the starting line of a race. And if you need any more help with your spelling, or any element of writing, why not submit a document for proofreading today?

Comments (11)
Ben Prickril
25th February 2021 at 15:48
This explanation of the etymology of “toe the line” is incomplete. According to Wikipedia the most likely origin of the term goes back to the wooden decked ships of the Royal Navy during the late 17th or early 18th century. Barefooted seamen had to stand at attention for inspection and had to line up on deck along the seams of the wooden planks, hence to "toe the line". T he first mention of this use in literature stems from a story about navy life published in 1831 and written by Captain Basil Hall RN.
    Proofed
    25th February 2021 at 16:09
    Hi, Ben. Thanks for the comment. We did mention that the etymology we gave was just "one possibility," but the more important factor is that we were referring to the figurative use of this phrase to mean "conform to a standard" (not its use to denote the literal act of standing with one's toes up to a line). And in this case, the athletic sense of "toe the line/mark" seems to be the most likely inspiration (e.g., see here). We've tried to clarify this in the post now.
    Lee Mortimer
    20th June 2021 at 17:20
    I haven’t used the term in writing so “toe vs tow” hadn’t occurred to me until I saw “toe” used in a recent article. My first instinct was that “tow” a “line” conjured up an image of a ship’s crew “towing” the rope(s) that guided a ship and then securely tying the ship alongside a pier. But I suppose I will have to stand corrected in the face of the explanation.
      Sunil
      19th July 2021 at 18:22
      Same.
Sara Donadei
8th March 2021 at 00:34
I was always told the phrase came from sailing - that you tow the line your superiors tell you to. Back in the day spelling wasn't always so uniform & many words have been modernized into being spelled differently. Honestly, the phrase makes much more sense defined as above...
    Proofed
    8th March 2021 at 09:48
    That's a new one on us! The "toe" etymologies seem more likely, especially as "toe" seems to be the older spelling and standardization of spelling was fairly well established by the time the phrase starts appearing. It's not uncommon for phrases to gain false nautical etymologies, though, partly because there are a lot of phrases that do come from language used in navies.
Bill Miller
12th March 2021 at 21:05
I too can see a case for either usage. Prior to any research, my first thought was that of laborers or slaves who were compelled to "tow a line" in order to perform some physical task demanded by their overseers.
    Proofed
    15th March 2021 at 10:36
    Hi, Bill. It's the ambiguity of this phrase that means that many people misuse it, but if you need an idiom meaning "follow the rules," the original spelling is "toe the line." As such, you'll want to stick to "toe" if you want to be sure your writing is clear.
Suz
25th August 2021 at 12:57
I had always heard that "tow the line" harkens back to riverboat travel, when it wasn't uncommon for people to have to get on the banks with tow lines and help to tow a boat past the shallows and back into more navigable water, essentially functioning as a towboat. The job often fell to slaves and indentured servants. Hence, "tow the line" could be about doing your part to help overcome the difficult, whereas "toe the line" was more a reference to following the rules and that either usage is correct if used thoughtfully in context.
    Proofed
    25th August 2021 at 17:12
    Hi, Suz. That's an interesting take! However, there is no evidence we know of to suggest that "tow the line" has ever been widely used with that meaning (it is almost always used in the sense of "follow the rules"). And given the widespread misspelling of "toe the line" using "tow" instead of "toe", you may need to be careful the context makes the meaning clear if you want to use "tow the line" as a distinct phrase!
Bill Cahoon
10th September 2021 at 22:35
Having served in the military, specifically the United States Navy, I found out exactly what "Toe the Line" means early on in boot camp, when we were ordered to stand with the toes of our boots up against a line on the floor. Something like that, you don't forget!

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