The Grammarphobia Blog

Why do New Yorkers stand “on line”?

Q: I clearly have too much time on my hands, but I was wondering if it’s correct English for New Yorkers to stand “on line” instead of “in line.”

A: It’s an accepted idiom in New York City to stand “on line,” though it sounds odd to people from other parts of the country.

Somebody from Atlanta or Chicago or Omaha or Phoenix gets “in line” and then stands “in line”; somebody from New York gets “on line” and then stands “on line.” (Same idiom whether you’re getting in/on line or standing in/on it.) Similarly, New York shopkeepers and such will always say “next on line!” instead of “next in line!”

This is a good example of a regionalism. In Des Moines, where I come from, you get black coffee when you ask for “regular” coffee. In New York, “regular” coffee means coffee with milk. It’s a big country.

Interestingly, New Yorkers aren’t the only folks to stand on line. The Dialect Survey, which maps North American speech patterns, found that the idiom was most prevalent in the New York metropolitan area, but that it occurred in pockets around the country, especially in the East.

My old employer, the New York Times, frowns on the usage. Here’s what the Times stylebook has to say on the subject: “Few besides New Yorkers stand or wait on line. In most of the English-speaking world, people stand in line. Use that wording.”

Well, is “on line” proper English? When you’re in New York, it is (unless you work for the Times). Just relax and “enjoy” (another New Yorkism!).

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com