We know you're waiting to vote, among other bits and pieces of waiting. But as you're waiting in reportedly long lines, what exactly are you muttering in your mind, or tweeting to your followers, or posting on your Facebook page, or texting to your friends? "Still waiting on line; meet me later for a drink, I'm gonna need it!" or "I'm still in line; they're longer than they were at Whole Foods pre #Sandy!"? It's the age-old question of on line versus in line rearing its head again, as Wordnik.com reminded us on this particular electoral day of waiting. It's like the great pop vs. soda vs. Coke debate, a look at America based on the strange and stranger ways in which we speak. So, which way do you say it? On or in? If you're the Brooklyn-born Joan Rivers, you say it like this:
Left Dr Nicholas and my gorgeous shorts behind and now back to find my darling Eric on line and vote. Perfect timing! twitter.com/Joan_Rivers/st…— Joan Rivers (@Joan_Rivers) November 6, 2012
As @Wordnik tweeted earlier, a PBS piece by linguist and author Deborah Tannen shed some light on the subject. Tannen writes that though American-English is ostensibly all the same, we have our own geographically based ways of speaking it, with expressions and pronunciations native and exclusive to certain areas. When I moved from Chicago to Alabama as a kid, for instance, I started pronouncing roof with an oo instead of an oof sound, and pajahmas instead of pa-JAM-as. But I definitely stood in, and not on, line in both places, unless I was quite literally standing on a line, possibly one drawn in chalk. Tannen writes, "Even though people all over the country speak English, the ways they let others know how they mean what they say—whether they’re being friendly, ironic, or rude—can be very different ... Plenty has been said about the New York accent—pronunciation of vowels (cawfee), consonants (tree for three), leaving out some r’s (toidy-toid street) and putting others in (Linder Ronstadt). And much has been said about vocabulary—if you say dungarees instead of jeans; if you stand in line or, as only a New Yorker can do, stand on line."
From Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage, "As for real physical lines, the British and New Yorkers wait 'on line' (in queues), but most Americans wait 'in line.'” As for which is correct, it appears to be mostly a matter of taste. According to the Dialect Survey, in answer to the question "When you stand outside with a long line of people waiting to get in somewhere, are you standing in line or on line?" 5.49% of people used on and 88.30% of people said in. Here are the maps of where those uses primarily appeared: