In line or on line

In line vs. on line?  I never knew I had a choice.  It just seems right to say I am waiting IN LINE. 

One of my new readers and fans, Matt Rankert, pointed out to me that in some part so of the U.S, especially the East, they say the are standing on line, not in line.  Some time ago, I did a post about regional words that falls in this category too.

Here is Matt’s email that prompted this post:

Hello Words by Bob,
I just found the site tonight and am already in my element.  I find the study of the use (and misuse) of words very interesting.  Although it’s a tiny point (1 letter) thought I would share one with you.that has always made me crazy…
In every area of the English speaking world, except New York City, people stand IN line.  New Yorkers, however, stand ON line.  When waiting at the deli, you’ll hear, “Next customer on line, step down!”  In conversation: “So, there I was standing on line at the market…” or “I don’t feel like standing on line.  Let’s go somewhere else!”  In fact, when you live in New York, you hear “on line” so often that you begin to question, “Have I been saying it incorrectly all these years?”  And, when speaking with friends or visiting back home, it sounds odd -and wrong- to hear them talk about “standing in line” somewhere.
It’s one little letter, but it has made me wonder where and why the phrase developed exclusively in the Big Apple.  I’m very curious! 
All the best,

After reading Matt’s email, I did some reearch on the two terms.  (Well, I googled them) Look at what I found–  a University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Linguistics Department map that graphically shows preferences for in line and on line geographically in the United States.

Is the term “in line” used in your area?   (And no for my rollerblade friend Chris H. , I don’t  think you can on line skate.)


One response to “In line or on line

  1. The map is interesting since, as I expected, the “on” is more common and more widely used in the NYC Tri-State. I am, however, surprised to see what would be Indy, Cincinnati, Louisville and Nashville represented with a red square. Having spent considerable chunks of time in each of those cities, if there are “on line” standers, I never met them.
    I don’t wish to dispute or discount this study by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, but I believe there is a difference between the responses folks give on a point-blank survey vs. what they may say in conversation without thinking it out. OR, they just happened to locate a handful of NYC transplants in each of those cities! -Matt