More Ramblings from a Los Angeles Programmer

December 20, 2006

“standing in line” vs “standing on line”

Filed under: linguistics — Josh DeWald @ 6:45 am

I definitely prefer and use “in line”, and based on user comments on here as well as other bits I’ve looked at it seems that “on line” originated in the New England area of the US.

Using the Google counting method of voting:

quoted phrases:

41K results

1M results

I don’t know when people starting using “on line”, but I actually think it was before the web became popular (I’ve seen it in books that are pretty old) but I started noticing it a couple of years ago and it still sounds rather awkward to my ears.

What’s your preference?

Update: I just woke up and noticed that the 2nd entry for the “stand in line” search was a “Dialect Survey” by the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Lingustics Department showing that most people prefer “in line.” Yeah, that’s right.

Update (11/29/2007): Reader Brendan pointed out that I didn’t quote each of my queries, which was especially important because “on line” is hugely popular. After doing that, “standing in line”clearly wins with about 1.4M results vs 32K for “standing on line.” Yeah, that’s right πŸ™‚

Update (9/30/2009): Many commenters have pointed out that this seems to come up a lot in New York (and New England). I was just watching 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanely Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, released in 1968. I noticed “on line” being used and looked up and it turns out that Kubrick was born in New York. So take of that what you will. This also is evidence that it is definitely not a new or recent phrase.

Update (11/10/2009):Β  Added the actual quoted version of the links. This replaced the old versions that didn’t have the quotes:

114M results:

53M results:


  1. You didn’t include the quotes (“standing in line”) in the search

    Standing in line is massively more common

    Comment by Brendan — November 29, 2007 @ 6:00 am

  2. Also seeing that you are a programmer I’m shocked you wouldn’t catch that

    Comment by Brendan — November 29, 2007 @ 6:01 am

  3. Brendan,

    Nice catch!

    I now get about 1.4M for “standing in line” vs 32K for “standing on line”. Crazy how much the results change (and in the opposite direction) which makes complete sense as the phrase “on line” itself is obviously hugely popular on its own.

    It does seem fair to say that “standing in line” is the clear winner.

    Comment by Josh DeWald — November 29, 2007 @ 7:19 am

  4. One stands “in line” and not “on line” at the concession stand or in any queue. If I hear “Next on line” from a cashier once more I’m going to scream. The same people who use “axed” instead of “asked” are most likely to say “on line.” “On line” means you are connected to the Internet with a computer, period.

    Comment by bukbukbuk — January 16, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

  5. I’d say “axed” vs. “asked” is one of pronunciation and region…

    Comment by Josh DeWald — January 16, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  6. “Standing on line” is more of a northeastern way of saying “standing in line”. There isn’t really much significance to it other than to say that people from the northeast tend to say “stand on line” rather than “stand in line”. This has been observed in Webster’s dictionary as far back as the 1960’s where I found this information….

    Comment by Zach — April 26, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

  7. We use to say “stand on line” in NYC. Just like we say “cawfee” (coffee), “pawk” (park), “dawg” (dog), etc..

    Comment by Dan — September 25, 2008 @ 2:10 am

  8. Yeah, as soon as I moved to NYC I realized they say “on line,” not “in line,” and I’d never ever heard “on line” used anywhere else but in reference to the Internet, so it kinda confused me. I guess it’s a NY thing but I don’t know if they use it anywhere else.

    Comment by Mark — October 16, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  9. Thank you, My fiance (a new yorker) just got pwned. Standing “in line” ftw.

    Comment by Marcus — October 29, 2008 @ 3:15 am

  10. Marcus: pwnage was definitely the goal of this post πŸ˜‰

    Comment by Josh DeWald — October 29, 2008 @ 3:19 am

  11. I’m from the Northeast, but I’ve only ever heard “on line” in New York; way too much–it drives me nuts.

    Comment by Andrea — December 1, 2008 @ 5:33 am

  12. i took the time to look this up after several arguments with friends at school. im from Rochester NY and all my arguments have been with those from NYC or nearby. so its more of just NYC than the Northeast in general. “in line” is the only acceptable way to say it in my opinion.

    Comment by Tony — January 18, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  13. “On line” is the only way to say it. In line is not only wrong, but it is shopped. I can tell because the pixels aren’t right.

    Comment by alex smith — January 25, 2009 @ 12:00 am

  14. Alex – What’s photo-shopped?

    Comment by Josh DeWald — February 26, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  15. I think if there is a physical line drawn/painted/taped/etc on the ground that you must follow, or stand on, so as to have a neat and straight row/line -you are standing both “on the line” and “in the line” at the same time. πŸ˜›

    Comment by John-NY — March 12, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  16. John-NY:
    Best answer ever!

    Comment by Josh DeWald — March 12, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  17. It is definitely a New York CITY thing, and hopefully it will stay that way. I’m sure it’s spread to LI and Westchester, but the root is really NYC. I cringe every time I see one of those huge banners at the post office that says, “Why stand on line, when you can go on-line?” I know they are stretching it for the phrasing, but it is helping to legitimize the usage.

    Comment by mari — March 16, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

  18. I had never even heard of the phrase “standing on line” until we went to the Baltimore Aquarium several weekends ago and heard people saying it. Then I got home and heard the evening newscaster saying it and thought “Oh boy, we’ve been stung by another ‘political correct-ism'”. Like “haaras” instead of “haraas”, or “axed” instead of “asked”.

    Comment by Bob — June 5, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

  19. By the way, you stand *in* line, *with* the people. If I were standing *on* the line I’d be on top of someone’s head.

    Comment by Bob — June 5, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  20. The “on line” thing always baffled me as well. Now that I think about it, the three references I can think of are all from New Yorkers. I started heaing it a lot on The Howard Stern Show, then on Seinfeld (set in New York) and most recently in a old LL Cool J song “I’m Bad” (a New York rapper).

    Comment by Angelo — June 8, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  21. I had never heard “on line” used before I moved to New York.

    Comment by Matt — July 30, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  22. Let’s add more prepositional aspects to this….

    Do we stand IN line for a show AT the weekend IN the rain ON the path?
    Do we stand ON line for a show ON the weekend UNDER the umbrella IN the rain ON the path IN a puddle?
    What happens if we’re OUT of line?
    UNDER line?

    I reckon you should get IN line mate πŸ™‚

    Comment by Karen — November 8, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

  23. I started hearing this on my local news and thought is sounded so awkward. I am from Milwaukee, WI, coincidentally where the linguistics study was performed. In my opinion “on line” should only refer to the internet. You are not standing on a physical line when at a store, you and the people in front of and behind you are making the line (say if you viewed it from above) therefore you are “IN” the line. “In line” makes much more literal sense so why are my local newscasters changing it? You would think that they would stick with the popular vernacular, especially for the region they are representing.

    Comment by Newspeople everywhere say it now. — November 28, 2009 @ 4:49 am

  24. “On line” is never correct when referring to a group of people standing one behind the other. The line is a single entity composed of individuals, which are in the line.

    Consider this: since line is a noun, adding an “a” to it or making it plural shouldn’t affect the meaning in any significant way.

    “I hate standing in lines. I hate standing in a line.” <– These sound fine.

    "I hate standing on lines. I hate standing on a line." <– These sound even more awkward than simply "I hate standing on line."

    Since "on line" began in the northeast, I think it is simply a by-product of their tendency to elongate vowel sounds at the beginnings of words. In gradually changed to on.

    Comment by daniel — December 8, 2009 @ 2:18 am

  25. I’ve heard that standing “on line” originated during the depression when lines were draw on the sidewalk outside of foodbanks so that there wouldn’t be mayhem amongst the people waiting for bread or soup, hence you were actually standing on line.

    Comment by phoebe — January 13, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  26. @phoebe –

    Interesting! This is actually the first theory I’ve heard on the origin of anything, very cool to start getting different responses from whether or not one is “right” or not πŸ™‚


    Comment by Josh DeWald — January 13, 2010 @ 11:05 am

  27. Interesting post.

    I found it also interesting that you used another “alternative linguistic structure” in the post.

    You wrote “take of that what you will” whereas I have always hear “make of that what you will” and “take from that what you will”.

    Comment by cori — August 7, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    • haha, nice! That’s probably just my own bad use of the language πŸ™‚
      I’ve definitely heard “make of that what you will” more frequently, but “take from that what you will” doesn’t seem very familiar to me. “make” certainly feels more “proper”

      Comment by Josh DeWald — August 7, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  28. one time in England, I was standing near the check-out waiting for my daughter to make a purchase. A gentleman approached and asked me if I was queueing. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was sure I wasn’t doing it whatever it was. Later I realized he was asking me if I was “in line”!

    Comment by diana — October 10, 2010 @ 6:12 am

  29. I hear from new york people also. Howard Stern says it pretty often.

    Comment by Pressure Washing Charleston — October 21, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  30. I found this by searching for “standing on line” in Bing. I was watching old 1970s and 1980s George Carlin comedy bits. It was awkward to my ears to hear “standing on line”, so I had to look for it. He says “standing on line” rather than “standing in line”, and is from outside of New York City, so your New York/New England explanation makes sense. Thank you!

    Comment by Michael — May 15, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

  31. I definitely stand in line!

    Comment by pressure washing charleston — June 29, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  32. Another NYC douchebag saying we are proud to own! Who cares where it started it’s as New York as the Statue of Liberty. Anyone who has spent any time in The Big Apple knows this expression.

    Comment by sizzlechest — September 30, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

  33. It is definitly in line not on line, but I have heard the term used when visiting NYC.

    Comment by Charleston Pro Wash — February 29, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

  34. Interesting. I always thought that “on line” was British usage.

    Comment by Merrie — May 9, 2012 @ 5:19 am

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  36. This has been an education. I’ve always said ‘in line’, and have only heard ‘on line’ uttered by New Yorkers, particularly my college roommate, a Manhattanite. I attributed the use to either a) getting it confused with ‘online’, as in using the internet, or b) a transplanted Britishism, similar to ‘on queue’. Now that I’ve read about people literally standing on a line, as in Depression-era soup kitchen lines and Ellis Island lines, I’m more apt to believe these as the true origins of the phrase, as it truly does seem to be unique to New Yorkers.

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