toe the line

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  • Most likely derived from putting one's toe to a line, mark, or seam on a naval ship as a form of regimentation or punishment.[1][2]


toe the line

  1. (idiomatic) To abide by the rules or conventions.
    Television shows these days do not always toe the line of decency and common sense.
    • 1831, Captain Basil Hall RN, Fragments of Voyages and Travels, reprinted from the London Literary Gazette in The Atheneum, 4th series, volume 1, page 188:
      The matter, therefore, necessarily became rather serious; and the whole gang of us being sent for on the quarter deck, we were ranged in a line, each with his toes at the edge of a plank, according to the orthodox fashion of these gregarious scoldings, technically called ‘toe-the-line matches.’
  2. (idiomatic) To stand at one's mark before a footrace.
    Alberto Salazar is one of the most famous athletes to have toed the line at this great race.

Usage notes[edit]

  • This is sometimes carelessly written as tow the line, which itself has taken on a new meaning as an eggcorn. This practice probably originated with people who heard the expression but were not familiar with the original spelling or meaning. With the spelling tow the expression naturally takes on a slightly more active meaning: not simply conforming to the rules, but helping to enforce or confirm them.

Related terms[edit]