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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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?