Towing the Line – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Would you like to tell someone that it’s about time they follow instructions, or that they should stick to the order that they have been given? The expression ‘toe the line’ is the right one to use, even though it is sometimes confused with the misnomer ‘tow the line’ instead. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The expression ‘towing the line’ is a common mistake where the expression to ‘toe the line’ is confused with an incorrect mishearing of the correct expression.

The correct use of the expression is to say either ‘toe the line’ or that someone is ‘toeing the line’.

The expression ‘towing’ or ‘to tow the line’ are both incorrect, as the actual use of the term says ‘toe’.

The meaning of the expression ‘toe(ing) the line’ is that someone has to obey or follow the rules, or that someone is close to the potential edge of not following or complying with set out rules and regulations.

The expression ‘to toe the line’ and ‘toe the line’ is a common colloquial expression that is sometimes more often than not used as a threat, sometimes jokingly although it can be applied with more seriousness by the person who says it.

The saying is almost never used in the plural form, and there are no ‘lines’ in the expression.

Example Usage

“If you’re going to give the colonel shit during your time at the academy, he’ll let you know very soon when you’re toeing the line.”

“If you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to the rules, you’ll spend the rest of the time at the academy just toeing the line.”

“Toe the line if you want, but I’ll decide to rather follow the rules of the cruise and not throw the pool noodle overboard.”

“You toe the line if you don’t follow the rules of the Starship.  If you aren’t careful with it, Elon Musk will stop over and drop you right there in the middle of space.”


The origin of the expression ‘toe the line’ and ‘toeing the line’ can be tracked all the way back to the 1600s or early-1700s, where most linguistic resources say that the term originated with the Royal Navy. Soldiers and seamen would stand against the line of the deck for inspection – and the expresion to ‘toe’ the line began to spread after this.

The expression would soon make it into more popular use, likely through the spread of naval terms like these through travel and the combined introduction of the printing press (and subsequent widespread printing of books).

Urban Dictionary records the term in 2016, though the saying has been used for several centuries before its commonplace use was recorded.

The terms ‘toeing the line’ or to ‘toe the line’ are generally used to indicate that someone should stick to the rules, or indicates that they are close to not doing so with their actions.

Phrases Similar to Towing the Line

  • Fine line

Phrases Opposite to Towing the Line

  • N/a

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Toeing the line
  • [To] toe the line

Ways People May Say Towing the Line Incorrectly

There are several ways in which someone might use the term ‘towing the line’ in the wrong way, or misunderstand the context in which the term has been used.

The term is sometimes said as ‘towing’ or ‘to tow’ the line, both of which are incorrect.

The right way to use the expression is to say that someone is ‘toeing’ the line instead.

There is no acceptable plural use, and the saying is unchanged even when several people are spoken about or to.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Towing the Line

The correct way to use the phrase is to say that someone is ‘toeing’ the line, or to say ‘to toe’ the line depending on the tense that is being used.


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