The Semantics of Voting: You Say 'On Line,' I Say 'In Line'

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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 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:

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: 

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And, from today, a few examples from around the Internet:

Even New Yorker Mayor Bloomberg, via @NYCMayor'sOffice, uses in, (or whomever is tweeting there does):

There are holdouts, though. Some on liners:

Gothamist's John Del Signore writes in a piece titled "How to Wait On Line": "because this comes up every freaking time we mention waiting on line, New Yorkers do in fact wait ON line. Waiting IN line is also acceptable, but don't try to correct us in the comments on this regionalism."

However, in sheer numbers, at least among those who tweet (and that's admittedly only a certain sampling), the ins appear to be winning—that is, until we can all truly vote online, and don't have to wait at all. Surely by that point some of our ways of talking about that activity will change, too. For now, say it however you want. Just vote. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.