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I’m not exactly sure under which circumstances is line or row the more suitable term.

In Portuguese, they both translate to the same word linha, which can be used for both a drawing line or for an item in a table.

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A line is a connected plane figure. A row is a series of individual instances lying on the same line, and defining it. Thus, a row of soldiers at attention can be spoken of as a line of soldiers. But the graph of x = y is a diagonal line, not a row. –  John Lawler Jul 11 '13 at 2:25
    
Is there a distinct term (in Portuguese) for the english noun file meaning a line of people or things one behind another, as in single-file? –  Fortiter Jul 11 '13 at 11:50
    
Altho' single-file is used and would be understood in BrE, I'm not aware that we use the word "file" on its own in that kind of sense. –  TrevorD Jul 11 '13 at 13:38
    
@TrevorD Think of the term “rank and file” as applied to the military. –  tchrist Jul 11 '13 at 17:24
    
@tchrist I certainly know the expression, but I'd never given even a moment's thought to the meaning of "rank and file"! –  TrevorD Jul 11 '13 at 18:21

3 Answers 3

There is substantial overlap in meaning, and if you use one where the other would've been more appropriate, native speakers will still understand what you meant; so don't worry about it too much.

For your purposes, I think the most important distinction is that row can only be used to refer to an arrangement of discrete items. For instance, in the sentence "He drew a line between the two points on the map", line cannot be replaced by row.

I can't presently think of an example where I'd say you can't go the other way -- replacing row with line -- but there certainly are cases where it would be odd. For instance, we normally always speak of a table of numbers having rows (which are always horizontal) and columns (which are always vertical). If you referred to a line of a table, that would be peculiar, but not wrong, and I think would be understood as unambiguously horizontal (by analogy with lines of text on a page, which are always horizontal ... well, as long as you're not talking about one of the East Asian languages that can be written vertically, anyway).

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I often see Line used for a set of item details on an order for example. –  mplungjan Jul 11 '13 at 7:58
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A row of houses would very rarely be referred to as a line of houses. There is a quasi-discrete property if we're talking about a terrace. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 11 '13 at 8:25
    
@EdwinAshworth The reason in the case of houses or cars is different from what we are dealing with here, the difference between line and row. –  Kris Jul 13 '13 at 7:46

If you were talking about a group of people queued for service (such as at a ticket window), you'd normally say a line of people. But, once seated inside the stadium or auditorium, they become a row of people.

It's similar with cars: on the highway at rush hour, it's a line of cars, but, in the parking lot, it's a row of cars.

One distinction seems to be that, if the objects are end-to-end, it's more likely to be a line, while if they are side-by-side, it's more likely to be a row. That may be a decent guideline to start with, but I'd caution against using it as a hard-and-fast rule. For one, it would be hard to apply that standard to, say, trees. In the case of trees, though, I think the wording might depend on the perspective of the onlooker: if the trees were spread across the landscape, they would form a row of trees, while, if they stood one behind another off into distance, that might be a line of trees (as in a tree-lined street).

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Interestingly, soldiers may stand in a line, but they march in a column. Well, if they’re part of the rank and file, that is. –  tchrist Jul 11 '13 at 17:26
    
I guess they're probably in columns between there may be mutiple columns marching side by side. When they're standing in line are they facing the back of the adjacent soldier (in marching position), or are they facing sideways (shoulder to shoulder) in what I would call a row? –  TrevorD Jul 11 '13 at 18:25
    
Where J.R.'s answer has "line" in the first two paragraphs, we would probably use "queue" in the UK. –  TrevorD Jul 11 '13 at 18:27

Technically, a line is a row of contiguous elements. Furthermore, a line does not ordinarily need to be a straight-line.

A row is always visualized as rectilinear. A row does not necessarily have to have all its elements touching each other (without a gap).

However, in general English usage, the terms are treated loosely as synonyms.

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I don't think of rows as having to be straight, either. Certainly, "rows" of seats in auditoriums don't have to be straight ... they are often curved so they all face the stage. –  Peter Shor Jul 16 '13 at 11:54
    
@PeterShor "A row is always visualized as rectilinear." It need not be straight in practice. When think of a row, you certainly don't think of a crooked arrangement. –  Kris Jul 17 '13 at 5:56

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