Word Confusion: Toe versus Tow

Posted July 25, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of:
18 Feb 2017

Ya know, I don’t really have a problem with tow the line. I mean, sure, people enjoy skimming across the water on thin boards, and it’s a bit far to reach the water with your arms when you’re standing up, so obviously someone is gonna have to tow that line. Then there’s the car breakdown. Don’t cha just hate that one? Obviously, again, someone is gonna have to tow that line with either a tow truck or a kindly friend with a long rope… But, if you’re expecting someone to tow a line and accept what you want…it just ain’t gonna work.

I reckon you could probably pull or drag someone physically into your corner. That would definitely qualify as towing the line, especially if you had them lassoed, and while the original meaning is “stand with the tips of the toes exactly touching a line”, its usage today is more metaphysical than truly physical.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

If you found this post on “Toe versus Tow” interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates.

Return to top

Toe Tow
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

“Edward Snowden, A Hero or Traitor” is courtesy of Business Insider

Edward Snowden certainly didn’t
toe the line…

“Towing A Person with a Vessel Legally” is courtesy of the State of Washington

Legally towing a person…ahem…please note this is one interpretation of what is meant by someone towing another.

Part of Grammar:
Verb, intransitive & transitive

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: toes
Past tense or past participle: toed
Gerund or present participle: toeing

Abbreviation 2; Noun 3, 4; Verb, transitive 4

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: tows
Past tense or past participle: towed
Gerund or present participle: towing

Any of the digits at the end of the human, a quadruped, or a bird foot

Lower end, tip, or point of something such as the tip of the head of a golf club

Foot or base of a cliff, slope, or embankment

Part of footwear — shoe, sock, etc. — that covers a person’s toes

Verb, intransitive:
Toe in/out is to walk with the toes pointed or a pair of wheels converge/diverse at the front

Verb, transitive:
Push, touch, or kick something with one’s toe

Toe the line is to accept the authority, principles, or policies of another, especially under pressure; a.k.a., toe the mark 1

Tube-launched, optically guided, wire-guided missile

Coarse and broken part of flax or hemp prepared for spinning 3

A rope of line used to tow a vehicle or boat 4

An act of towing 4

Verb, transitive:
[Of a motor vehicle or boat] Pull another vehicle or boat along with a rope, chain, or tow bar

[Of a person] Pull someone or something along behind one
Stick your toe in the water.

Hmmm, the toes on your shoes are getting pretty scuffed.

Try and keep everyone on their toes, ready for anything.

I’ve got another hole in the toe of my pink socks.

Verb, intransitive:
He toes out when he walks.

That man makes my toes curl.

Verb, transitive:
You’d better toe the line, buster.

Launch the TOW!

Do you need a tow?

Verb, transitive:
He towed Joe’s car to the garage.

He arrived with his girlfriend in tow.

I need a tow out of the River Tick.

Adjective: toed, toeless, toelike Adjective: towable, towy
Phrasal Verb
History of the Word:
Old English is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch tee and German Zeh, Zehe.

Current senses of the verb date from the mid-19th century

1 First noted use of toe the line is in 1841 and reached a high in 1947 to this day.
Old English (verb)
2 1970
3 Old English of Germanic origin and recorded in towcræft meaning spinning

4 Early 17th century of Germanic origin from togian, meaning draw, drag. It’s related to tug.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Return to top

Pinterest Photo Credits:

I took some Photoshopping liberties with “MOHAI – Lincoln Toe Truck” by Joe Mabel [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons and stretched it out a bit.