Q: I’m curious about the origin of the New Yorkism “on line” for “in line,” and why this regionalism has persisted for so long when it’s not particularly correct.
In our 2010 post, we debunk the myth that the usage originated at Ellis Island as immigrants were told to stand on lines painted on the floor. We also say that correctness doesn’t enter the picture.
“Some of our readers have suggested over the years that ‘wait on line’ is grammatically incorrect,” we write. “Not so. This is a regional usage that’s as idiomatic to New Yorkers as asking for ‘regular’ coffee when they mean coffee with milk.”
We checked recently for any new research that might answer your question. We found studies about the frequency of the usage, but none on how it developed.
In “Dialect Boundaries in New Jersey,” published in the journal American Speech in November 2009, the linguist Dale F. Coye tracks preferences for “wait on line” versus “wait in line” among New Jersey college students.
Coye concludes that the closer the students live to New York City, the more likely they are to prefer the “on line” version.
“Wait on line is a shibboleth of New York City speech,” he writes, “while in New Jersey it is restricted to the northeastern part of the state, with evidence of its use extending as far south as the Trenton suburbs, Monmouth County, and west to eastern Sussex and Hunterdon counties.”
As Coye writes, “It was not reported at all on the upper Delaware and only very rarely in South Jersey, where the typical American wait in line is used.”
“On line was strongest in Bergen County (78%), with the other counties bordering New York City selecting it by a two-thirds to three-quarters margin,” he adds.
The farther one gets from New York City, Coye writes, “the usage of on line diminishes. In addition, on the outer edge of the on line region, the numbers of informants reporting they used both forms increased.”
“The numbers using wait on line may dwindle rapidly in the future,” he says. “Some informants reported that although their parents used wait on line, they themselves did not because of the newer meaning of online referring to the Internet.”
(The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of the word used in the computing sense is from High-speed Computing Devices, 1950, edited by W. W. Stifler Jr.: “In on-line operation the input is communicated directly … to the data-reduction device.”)
In a 2003 nationwide study, the “Harvard Dialect Survey,” more than 10,000 Americans responded to this question:
“When you stand outside with a long line of people waiting to get in somewhere, are you standing ‘in line’ or ‘on line’ (as in, ‘I stood ___ in the cold for two hours before they opened the doors’)?”
The responses nationwide were “in line” (88.30%); “on line” (5.49%); “both sound equally good” (5.36%); “neither” (0.12%); and “other” (0.73%).
The responses for New York State were “in line” (57.34%); “on line” (23.67%); “both sound equally good” (18.14%); “neither” (0.12%); and “other” (0.73%).