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.
    Synonym: walk the line
    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.’
    • 2010, Jennifer Egan, “Out of Body”, in A Visit from the Goon Squad:
      Last week, he'd told her he was hiring a detective to make sure she ‘toed the line’ on her own in New York.
  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. (idiomatic, followed by between) To be on a boundary or in a grey area between two states.
    Her stories often toe the line between fact and fiction.
    • 2012, Dalton Higgins, Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake, the Unofficial Story, Toronto, O.N.: ECW Press, →ISBN, page 98:
      Still other performers like St. Louis's Nelly or Long Beach's Domino toed the line between rapper and singer, defying easy categorization.
    • 2015 August 20, Allie Funk, “All About The ICA In 'Hitman: Agent 47'”, in Bustle[4], archived from the original on 2016-05-13:
      Although the ICA toes the line between good and evil, it is similar to many other espionage organizations in action films — including some recent ones.
    • 2017, Joseph D. Carriker Jr., Sacred Band, Maple Shade, N.J.: Lethe Press, →ISBN, page 85:
      Monica flirted with her outrageously, but Deosil made a point of toeing the line between flirting and actually sleeping with festival folk. That never ended well.
    • 2019 April 9, Priya Arora, “An Indian TV Show Points the Way for a New Generation”, in The New York Times[5], New York, N.Y.: The New York Times Company, →ISSN, →OCLC, archived from the original on 2022-11-25:
      The conflicts between tradition and cultural change also play out in the protagonists' personal lives, and the show is not afraid to make its audience uncomfortable, especially when it forces characters to toe the line between being an insider or outsider.
  4. (nonstandard) To push boundaries imposed by an authority; to push the envelope, cross the line.
    You were really toeing the line there with those comments.
    • 2006, Adam Selzer, How to Get Suspended and Influence People, New York: Delacorte Press, →ISBN, page 80:
      "I happen to agree with you," he said. "But they don't want to leave themselves open to getting sued. And anyway, you're really sort of toeing the line with this video to start with. It's pretty risqué."
    • 2008, Robin Goldstein, editor, The Fearless Critic: Houston Restaurant Guide, Austin, T.X.: Fearless Critic Media, →ISBN, page 122:
      Burgers, too, though enormous, are pricier than you'd expect at a lunch counter; at our last visit, one with fries and an iced tea cost $13.42—not prohibitive, but definitely toeing the line.
    • 2013, Rowena Bowen, Get You Good, Detroit, M.I. []: Thorndike Press, →ISBN, page 322:
      "Even so, this is really toeing the line." / Lissandra was wrong. This wasn't toeing the line. This was across the line and 20 meters away. If she got caught, there was no way she would be able to explain it away.
    • 2013 March 16, Christopher Olmstead, “What Would Happen in a Vince McMahon vs. Dana White Match?”, in Bleacher Report[6], archived from the original on 2022-03-25:
      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.
    • 2020 February 14, Dan Bloom, “Cabinet reshuffle: 7 reasons to be worried about Boris Johnson's power-grab new team”, in The Mirror[7], →OCLC, archived from the original on 14 April 2013:
      Ousted Attorney General Geoffrey Cox had toed the line, a bit - but he was also a keen defender of the legal system, and his legal advice on Brexit was a thorn in Prime Ministers' sides.
    • 2022 June 29, Brandon Louis, “Loki's Alligator Loki Fight Scene Was Originally More Gory”, in Screen Rant[8], archived from the original on 2022-07-10:
      Even Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film that was markedly more horrific than any other entry in the massive superhero franchise, cut away from the film's goriest moments, such as Captain Carter's brutal bisection at the hands of the Scarlet Witch. Although the film definitely toed the line with Black Bolt's crunching cranial collapse.
    • 2017 June 8, Sesali Bowen, “The Unexpected People, Places & Things That Make Kanye West Smile”, in Refinery29[9], archived from the original on 14 April 2023:
      Today is Kanye West's 40th birthday — officially proving that he is really toeing the line by calling himself a millennial.


Coordinate terms[edit]


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, 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 1998-07-03