June 30, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Wait on line or wait in line & per versus an & more on only

Posted in only, per day/a day, per/an, waiting in line/on line at 6:11 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Wait in line or wait on line

A reader writes:

It seems that the difference between “wait in line” versus the now popular “wait on line” has been left out. Can you provide clarification here, please?

 ‘Wait in line’ is the standard expression. My first thought was that maybe it was somehow connected to the computer age, and the term ‘online’ has become so ubiquitous that some were transferring it to the physical act of waiting in line. But after doing a little research, I found that this was not the case, and I also found that we had addressed this before <https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/waiting-in-lineon-line/> .

The use of ‘wait on line’ instead of the more common ‘wait in line’ is a regionalism of the New York area (some say of the whole Northeast).  The story, which may very well be apocryphal, goes that the expression ‘wait on line’ stems from days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Ellis Island served as the entry point for most immigrants to the US. In order to be processed to enter the country legally, immigrants had to literally wait on a line painted on the floor of the processing facility as they moved from station to station. Thus, the regionalism, ‘wait on line’ was born. I don’t know if it is true, but it is a good story and a reasonable explanation.

Tip 2: Per versus an & more on only

A reader writes:

Everyone says “I drove x miles an hour.”  Is this correct?  Or is it correct only to say “I drove x miles per hour”?

Either is correct, and both are considered standard. Here is a piece on a similar topic from awhile back <https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/per-daya-day/.

Some people believe that ‘per’ is business or technical jargon and should not be used in other contexts. Bill Walsh, in The Elephants of Style, has this to say about ‘per:’

We love per and the superfluous as per in office memos (Boom boxes are NOT allowed on desks during working hours, per Joanne), but actual writing demands actual writing, and there are countless ways to actually write such a thing.

I think that is a little harsh. And in the context in which our reader is using ‘per,’ it works perfectly well. I don’t have much else to say about ‘I drove x miles an hour’ versus ‘I drove x miles per hour.’ Use either one, but I do have some thoughts on how the reader used ‘only.’

I know we discussed this briefly a few weeks ago, but I have a bit more to say on the subject. First, let me say that there are no real rules for how to use ‘only,’ what there is constitutes convention or style. ‘Only’ is quite an interesting word. It can be an adjective:

She is  the only biostatistician voted best teacher three years in a row.

An adverb:

Don’t blame me; I only work here.

Or, in informal writing or speech, a conjunction:

I would go to the show with you, only I promised my friends that I would wait for them.

It is its use as an adverb that has caused confusion over the last couple of centuries—specifically, where it is placed in a sentence.

The prevalent view is to place it before the word or phrase it is modifying, but as I said, this is not a rule—it could also follow the word it is modifying or be plunked elsewhere in the sentence for that matter.

The important thing is to ensure that the meaning of the sentence is clear and that the sentence communicates what you want it to. In the example above:

Don’t blame me; I only work here.

The meaning is quite different from:

Don’t blame me; I work only here.

At least in these examples, the meaning, albeit different, is clear. The problem arises when the placement of ‘only’ causes the meaning to be ambiguous or misleading.

Only the new manuscript was read by the investigator. (The old manuscripts weren’t read.)

The new manuscript was only read by the investigator. (It was just read, not copied or saved.)

The new manuscript was read only by the investigator. (She was the sole one to read it.)

The new manuscript was read by the only investigator. (She was the one investigator there.)

The bottom line is the meaning has to be clear.

The reader wrote:

Or is it correct only to say “I drove x miles per hour”?

I would have written it this way:

Or is it only correct to say “I drove x miles per hour”?

However, I knew what the reader was saying, and, as a result, I wouldn’t quibble with the placement. (Although, I kind of just did, didn’t I?)

Addendum to Email Etiquette

Finally, after our discussions and reading your comments. I ended up with three email conventions that I am going to adopt:

End of Message (EOM)

No Response Necessary (NRN)

Response Requested (RR)

I don’t know if it will work, but I am going to give it a try. I will keep you posted on the outcome.



  1. Le Ueng said,

    Under Tip 2, “Per versus An & more on Only” – a Conjunction is missing. On the fifth paragraph, you wrote “I think that is a little harsh.” — shouldn’t it be “I think that that is a little harsh” ? I am learning, let me know if I were wrong. thank you. Le

    • dlseltzer said,

      Hi. While it would also be correct to state, “I think that that is a little harsh,” I always find saying, “that that” is a little awkward. In many cases, it’s fine to surpress ‘that’ and know that it is implied. It’s like saying, “Thank you for the gift that you gave me.” It’s equally fine to surpress the that and say, “Thank you for the gift you gave me.” So in this case, that would call for a double that, I did just that and suppressed it. I hope this makes sense to you. It’s one of the quirks of English.

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