The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 2, 2009

Tow the Line. [UPDATED]

What are people thinking when they say this, I wonder?  What are they picturing?  A tug of war with two teams and a heavy hemp cable?  No one has towed a barge on a canal by a rope while trudging along a towpath for over a century, as far as I know.  At least, not in the United States.

It’s toe the line.  Toe.  As in step up and stand exactly where you’re supposed to.

These malapropisms are artifacts of an oral, aural culture where people hear language — through their iPods, through YouTube videos — far more than they read it.

“She poured over the document” is another one that really bothers me.  I worry about the ink running.  Think of it as examining something so closely you can see its pores, and you will be spelling it correctly.

You know, we used to have the opposite problem.  We read so much that we’d seen words we’d never heard, so we invented our own ways of pronouncing them, which could be way off base and could persist for years or even decades.  For the longest time I thought “succumb” was pronounced “suc-kewm” and, best of all, that “misled” was “my-zeld”:  chiseled, swindled, and misled!

UPDATE: George Orwell noted this misuse in 1946!



  1. Isn’t it “toe the line” ? As in, ‘put your toes on the line’ ??

    Comment by tulipunky — April 30, 2010 @ 2:45 am | Reply

    • Yes, exactly! That’s what this post is about.

      Comment by amba12 — April 30, 2010 @ 8:38 am | Reply

  2. […] “tow the line,” this is, I think, what’s called an “eggcorn” (follow that link, great […]

    Pingback by Usage Find of the Day « The Compulsive Copyeditor — January 30, 2012 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: