Kids, if you’re standing in what our British cousins might call a “queue” – one of those setups where you’re waiting your turn in a more-or-less ordered straggling pile of people ahead of you – you are not “on line” or “online”. You are “in line”, as in “in line with the people ahead of you” or “in a line at the ticket counter”. You may be “online”, for instance, if you brought your iPhone, but you’re not standing “online”.
When it’s your turn, you are not “next on line”; you are “next in line”. It doesn’t matter that (1) all your friends say it this way, (2) you’ve never heard of “in line”, (3) you don’t get what the difference is, or (4) you don’t care. It’s still wrong, and you’re wrong if you talk that way.
One day, long ages hence, the language may have become so permanently mutilated that “online” will be the correct way to say “waiting in a queue arranged linearly”. But that day is not today, nor will it be tomorrow, and if I have anything to say about it, will be never.
I wonder sometimes where this abomination comes from. I don’t know, really, but I have a couple of guesses which do not exclude one another. The correct term — “in line”, in case you forgot — comes from the simple fact that you are, in fact, in a line with the people in front of and behind you. Even if that line curves or turns back (as around crowd-control barriers at an airport), it’s still a continuous line from front to back. It’s not a metaphorical line, it’s a real one, made up of people.
Now, to say that you’re “on line”, assuming that it’s not just completely stupid (let’s don’t rule that out, but perhaps there’s a quasi-sensible origin somewhere), must have originally meant something to the first bonehead to use the phrase to mean “standing in a line”. My current theories are these:
- In some elementary schools, I have seen actual lines painted along corridors or in lunchrooms, presumably to give the little blighters a physical reference for what standing “in line” might look like. In their case, they would actually be “on line” when standing “in line”, and I suspect that careless or worn-out teachers quickly abandoned the pretext of a semantic difference, and just took to screeching, “Billy, get back on line before I put you in double-secret timeout for another 15 seconds!”
- Some person whose grasp of the art of speech was only the barest, whilst grasping for the complicated phrase “in line” to indicate that they were currently “in a line”, stumbled upon the phrase “on line”, and since it had in their confused mental state a vaguely good association (after all, the cool kids are all online these days), they chose it as the best they could do and just went with it.
- Others, either linguistically careless or semantically clueless, heard this usage and managed to go so far as to invent a metaphoric line on the floor on which all of the people “in line” were standing, thus making the “on line” a harmless, perhaps even clever, variation. Seeking novelty over clarity, or just not caring enough to say anything right in the first place, they, too, just went with it.
Hence, perhaps, is the language further debased.
I welcome other theories, or better yet, reasonably well-supported evidence, indicating how “on line” came to muscle out its correct cousin and perch now insolently atop the pile of juvenile misolinguism.