Regular Doses of Common Sense™

It’s a Line You Don’t Tow

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A recent entertainment article on Yahoo! began with this sentence:

“Never accuse “The Big Bang Theory” star Kaley Cuoco of toeing the CBS company line.

Because “toeing the line” is a phrase we most often encounter via the spoken word rather than the written word, many people just guess at what’s really being said. That’s why when most people write it out, they select the word towing. As a grammarian, it makes me smile when I see someone use such a rarely-written idiom correctly.

To the defense of those who get it wrong, there’s no question that “towing the line” seems like it’d be a commonsense choice: if you’re “towing” something, you’re pulling it along, carrying it where it needs to go.

But this is one of those rare cases in which common sense alone doesn’t necessarily provide you with the correct answer. Grammar has a funny way of making that happen, doesn’t it?

The correct phrase is “toeing the line,” and the most likely origin of the idiom, according to Wikipedia, is the British Royal Navy of the late 17th or early 18th century. Sailors stood at attention barefooted for inspection and had to line up on the ship’s deck along the seam of the wooden planks. To be in proper line, they stood with their toes along the line. So “toeing the line” meant to fall into place.

In more modern times, toeing the line refers to conforming to an organization’s ideals, particularly in expressing a common sentiment or advocating a common ideal.

Political parties are particular fond of expecting their members to toe whatever line they come up with next.

I hope you’ll toe only the lines you see as reasonable, and tow bad grammar to the nearest dumpster!


not to pick nits, but I am assuming the sailor should line up on the deck, not the desk?


Once again I am in awe of your knowledge of our language. I am embarrassed about writing that incorrectly in the past! At least now going forward my writing will look wrong but be right.