Quibbling over Semantics


As a law student, there's nothing I love better than quibbling over semantics. In light of that, I present the following argument: Something's been bothering me ever since I moved here. Now, don't get me wrong, New York is great. It's great for selection and ready availability of goods. It has great public transportation, it has great nightlife. A bit expensive, but what're you going to do? That having been said, there's one thing that New York is profoundly not great at: Having a populace that knows the proper preposition to attach to queues. To put it bluntly: One does not stand on a line, one stands in a line.

Those who have not been to New York or met New Yorkers fresh out of their home environs may not be aware of this, but New Yorkers, when they refer to the act of being within a queue, refer to it as "Standing on line." As in, "I'm standing on line at the theater," or "I was standing on line at the check-out counter." That is, they use the phrase "on line" where everyone else uses the phrase "in line." Moreover, if you speak to born-and-bred New Yorkers, they don't even see what the problem is. That is, I've spoken to people who were as puzzled by the phrase "standing in line" as non-New Yorkers are by "standing on line." They think it is the natural and proper way to express the concept.

I would submit that the correct preposition in this case is "in," not "on." I won't make the mundane point that my position is backed up by the majority of the English speaking world; just because vast swaths of the country and certain presidents I could name pronounce it Nukeular doesn't make it correct. Rather, we must examine the two options carefully. Both tend to imply a state of being contained within a conveyance or other thing larger than the member who is entering it. However, On tends to imply a state of riding on top of, of being in some sense above the object. In implies being contained within that object. When speaking of lines, the line extends neither above nor below its members. They are contained within it. When they leave, they have gotten out of it; they are no longer subsumed to the line. If there were in fact a physical line upon the ground that formed the guidepoint for the queue, then I could accept standing on line, as you are physically on top of the line. But in common use there is no such line on the ground, and this rendering is made nonsensical. I may as well be standing under line, referring to an invisible strand suspended above the heads of those queued up.

That having been said, I'm trying to adapt to saying that I am "standing on line," both because it helps me to blend in better and integrate to my new home, and because "standing on line"is one of the last of the few charming regionalisms that have gradually vanished as our language has been rendered more and more uniform. Nonetheless, when not in New York City, I will proudly stand in line, and I wish it to be known, henceforth and forever, that while I may adopt the local vernacular, I do not by any means consider it correct.


Wow, you're a verbose blogger Zach, but as a rhetorician I appreciate the defense and further propogation of sematic squabbles. As a side note, it's in my opinion that queuing is a superior phrase because it's a verb and doesn't have to take part in the great preposition debates.

Queueing also has an insanely fun number of vowels; how can you not love it?

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on August 26, 2005 4:01 PM.

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