Recently, as I was reading a novel published by a well-known New York publishing house, I came across a sentence about how the heroine was not the type of person to tow the line.
Um, no. The expression is to toe the line. The mistaken phrase pulled me out of the book and it took a while for me to settle back in. But mistakes happen. No matter how many eagle-eyed editors and proofreaders look at a book, typos can still slip through.
But when the phrase tow the line popped up again, I knew this was a genuine misunderstanding and not a typo. It took even longer this time for me to be able to get back into the flow of the book. As a writer, I want to do everything I can to avoid putting the reader in this uncomfortable situation. A couple of typos is human error. Repeating the same mistake smacked of a level of ignorance I wouldn’t have expected from such a well-respected publishing company. No one who looked at the manuscript before it was published knew the correct phrase? Really? I ran this blog post through the grammar checking program Grammarly and they flagged my reference to tow the line as a mistake.
What does toe the line mean?
To toe the line most commonly means to follow the rules set down by another. Picture a group of people standing next to one another, all facing forward, all with their toes touching the same line. If someone doesn’t line up with the others, aka toe the line, they might suffer negative consequences, such as negative social pressure, the loss of precious seconds that could cost them the race, or corporal punishment.
The people in this example are toeing the line. They are not walking along with a tow line over their shoulders. They are not towing the line. That might be appropriate if talking about people towing a boat. But that’s not true in my example and it certainly wasn’t true in the book I read.
What are the origins of toe the line?
I poked around the internet, but couldn’t find one strong argument for where this phrase originated. It was used for a long time in sports, such as track and field where runners line up with their toes literally against a line on the track at the start of a race. I found a reference to sailors lining up with their toes along a crack between the boards on a ship’s deck. Soldiers in formation are toeing a line, even if it might be invisible.
Here’s a link to a website that provides a bit of history on the phrase.
How about you? What mistaken phrases have you seen that drive you crazy?