toe the line

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Alternative forms[edit]


Unknown, with multiple competing etymologies and some theorizing the phrasing originated from the United States and others the United Kingdom.[1][2][3][4]


  • (file)


toe the line (third-person singular simple present toes the line, present participle toeing the line, simple past and past participle toed 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.
  3. (nonstandard) To begin to cross the line, as if with one's toe; to test limits imposed by an authority, to push boundaries.
    • 2013 March 16, Olmstead, Christopher, “What Would Happen in a Vince McMahon vs. Dana White Match?”, in Bleacher Report[4], retrieved 24 March 2022:
      If you take anything away from this challenge, it should be that McMahon is still willing to go there. He is still willing to push boundaries and toe the line.


See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gary Martin (n.d.), “Toe the line”, in The Phrase Finder[1], retrieved September 13, 2020
  2. ^ Bryan A. Garner (2016), “toe the line; toe the mark”, in Garner's Modern English Usage, 4th edition, New York: Oxford University Press, →ISBN, OCLC 965547281, page 913
  3. ^ Michael Quinion (December 18, 2005), “Toe the line”, in World Wide Words[2], retrieved September 12, 2020
  4. ^ “Nautical Terms and Phrases... Their Meaning and Origin”, in Traditions and Trivia[3], Naval Historical Center, October 19, 1997, archived from the original on July 3, 1998, retrieved September 13, 2020