I'm curious to hear from folks in the the Northeast United States (or anyone, really) an explanation of why "standing on line" seems preferable to "standing in line" in the US northeast.

I imagine for many people that their reasons for preference will be that "It just sounds better," just as my reasons for my preference is that "standing on line" sounds too awkward to my ears. That said, I can't even create a linguistic argument for why it might be more "correct."

  • It's personal preference.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Aug 7, 2010 at 17:41
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    It isn't used in the mid-atlantic states that I know of. It sounds New Englandish. Commented Aug 8, 2010 at 2:35
  • I was hoping to hear from someone who used the construct, but I also don't just want it hanging out there.
    – cori
    Commented Aug 23, 2010 at 13:34
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    If there is an actual line drawn on the floor, I might stand on line. If i'm waiting behind others, I will stand in line. If I wait behind others while using my laptop, I am standing in line on-line!
    – Tester101
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 16:43
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    For the record, it is used in New York City and the surrounding suburbs. My impression is that it doesn't even extend to Philadelphia, but I can't say for sure. Certainly not to Boston. Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 9:47

5 Answers 5


There is no linguistic reason why either one is correct. This is a normal example of language variation. There are possibly linguistic reasons why such variation in prepositions is fairly common, that being that the meaning of prepositions in many cases is notoriously hard to pin down (in some cases, they have no real meaning, acting instead as plain case markers).

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    This should not be the best answer, it is not totally correct. On implies being on top of, in implies being inside of or part of. Commented Sep 28, 2010 at 14:16
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    On the contrary, it is totally correct. Which part of what Alan Hogue says do you take issue with?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 15:40
  • He says you can't pin down why you would use one or the other. If I'm standing in line, I'm standing in the line I am in. On the other hand, even if there is a line on the floor, that is not the line being referred to, but rather the line of people. Therefore you are in the line, and definately are not standing on [top of] the line of people. Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 2:27
  • Would you say "standing on ceremony" was incorrect, and it should be "standing in ceremony"? You're certainly not standing on anything when you stand on ceremony. Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 14:40
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    @ArlenBeiler Alas, language does not follow strict logic, which would make communication so much simpler. "on" doesn't mean "on top of" in all or even mosts cases. We turn a light "on" but it's not on top of anything. A person may be "on drugs" but no one is on top of the drugs. Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 18:27

Disclaimer: not exactly a Northeasterners. Like "not at all".

Standing in line is the most common usage, yet "on line" has been used for some time now.

enter image description here

(This blog post comments:

Many commenters have pointed out that this seems to come up a lot in New York (and New England).
I was just watching 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanely Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, released in 1968. I noticed “on line” being used and looked up and it turns out that Kubrick was born in New York.
So take of that what you will. This also is evidence that it is definitely not a new or recent phrase.

The debate raged on democraticunderground.com:

We say 'standing in line', as in 'in a line', eg. 'part of a line'.
'Waiting FOR you' is waiting for another person to arrive or accomplish something.
'Waiting ON you' happens in a restaurant.

I Stand On Line At The Bank... My Car Gets In Line At Jiffy Lube

So unless you have to walk over and stop on a line in order to wait for your turn, ... you probably are waiting, standing in line.

enter image description here

  • The last picture is from the article of e-citylife, on queuing in UK.
    – VonC
    Commented Aug 7, 2010 at 18:10
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    Indeed, queuing. We stand neither in nor on a line, we queue (or stand in a queue).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 15:41
  • How to stand in line? youtube.com/watch?v=9wispKpTV74
    – VonC
    Commented Nov 15, 2010 at 22:19
  • You're right, Colin. Standing in line, seems to be in American English. In the UK, it is queueing or, standing in a queue.
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 22:58

Standing on line implies that you are standing on something. Since the line is composed of people, isn't it more likely that you are standing in the line, not on it? I think the use of the phrase "on line" as it relates to the internet has become so common, that it may have migrated to being used to describe standing in line.

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    And exactly what is it that you are physically on top of when you are "on line" in the internet sense? Unless you can produce evidence to the contrary, there are absolutely no grounds for connecting "stand on line" with "be on line" in the different senses. I strongly suspect that "stand on line" predates remote connection - I'm sure it predates the internet.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 15:43
  • @Colin: I am no expert, but my best guess as to why we use "on-line" is that it evolved from being "on the line" with regards to phone lines. That may have come from being "on the phone." It is a longshot, I suppose.
    – MrHen
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 20:44
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    People have been "waiting on line" in New York City for much,much longer than there was an internet. It goes back to 1917 or earlier; see Google Ngram (I used waiting rather than standing because in the Ngram because "standing on line" occurs in other contexts.) Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 9:34
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    And for the record, I can find it used back in 1901. Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 9:45
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    I think you are misparsing "standing on line". It isn't "standing on - line", it is "standing - on line". "On line" is a status, like "on hold" or "on time". (And I think this ngram argues strongly against any connection between "online" and "waiting on line".) Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 22:54

In British English it's the latter. I have never heard of the 'on line' variant used here in the UK.

  • In British English, it is neither of the options. No Brit (that I'm aware of) ever talks of standing in line - we queue.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 18:00
  • @TrevorD With English primary school children I think you could say: Stay in line / keep in line / line up But it's been a long time since I last went to school!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 20:17
  • @Mari-LouA Yes, I can accept all of those, but Stand(ing) in line?
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 23:07

Regional difference in the way 'in' is pronounced? Perhaps with a certain accent 'in' sounds close enough to 'on' to cause the confusion. They're saying 'in line' but it just sounds more line 'on line'?

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    No, they actually do say on line in New York City. We know the difference between in and on, and we certainly don't pronounce them the same. We just use them funny. Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 1:29

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