Thoughts About: Row vs. Line, or: Achtung, Semantics Nazi!

During the second-to-last chapter of Pony Boot Camp I stumbled across a problem I had solved for myself long ago (or so I thought): the – partly blurry – difference between “row” and “line” in the sense of spatial arrangement.

“So it came to pass that Fifteen found her slender self harnessed to the first sulky in line. Consequently it was first in row as we were trotting along the main road south of the camp.”

Although colloquially interchangeable in my native language, too, I apply the following rules to it:

  • “Reihe” describes the formation of objects or beings positioned one behind the other.
  • “Linie” describes the formation of objects or beings positioned one next to the other.

Can I justify this choices? Sure, and I will in the next paragraph. So I applied it to the chapter’s first draft. But checking the two terms’ definition whilst writing the final version led me into thinking that there’s a far weaker distinction between them in English. Then I even arrived at a point where I believed to see “row” being applied mainly to a side-by-side arrangement, and “line” to its counterpart. Then I drifted back to the one-fits-all definition. And then I thought, “fuck it!”, and changed everything back to the way it had been in the first place.

The Duden, arguably the dictionary with the best reputation and greatest influence in Germany, supports both definitions for both terms (1)(2). So does Merriam-Webster for the English point of view (3)(4). My personal rule derives from the military use of “Linie”/”line”: “In Linie antreten” means “to line up” means one soldier next to his comrade. “Feindliche Linien” are “enemy lines”, where the adversaries are standing abreast. They are only standing in a “row” whilst waiting for their food in front of the field kitchen. What, you say a group of people waiting like this is called a “line”? Nope, since I write in British English, it’s called a “queue”. (Phew, that was a near thing!)

What all this boils down to is this: Language, if used correctly, is a path to great textual and stylistic clarity – but it also offers short cuts and cul-de-sacs en masse, and normally I am the first one trying to chart the wrong turns. I do hope the gentle reader has followed nonetheless – thoughts and comments on this topic are very welcome.








About Venom

Bloke from Central Europe; Petrol Head; Observer of Human Depravity View all posts by Venom

9 responses to “Thoughts About: Row vs. Line, or: Achtung, Semantics Nazi!

  • Vandalay

    Zieg Heil Herr Venom. Amusing that you would address this. I do remember that moment in the description of the action and was a bit confused at first, but was able to figure it out. So thanks for that. Far be it for me to be Anti-Semantic.

    • Venom

      Thanks, Vandalay! I’m curious here: Why exactly did the choice of words confuse you a bit? And how have you solved it for you, how did you eventually imagine the scene?

      • Vandalay

        I just assumed that your use of the word “row” was the same as my use of the word “line”. I swapped them out and everything made sense.

        • Vandalay

          But to answer your first question, your use of the word “line” confused me as I imagine a line of carts lined up one behind the other, extending backward from the first row.

        • Vandalay

          In North America, we often used the expression “move to the front of the line”, which means to jump queue.

          • Venom

            Thanks for the insight. As mentioned, the first version of the chapter posted here actually had the two words swapped. But I’m glad I swapped them back, or else there wouldn’t be this Thoughts About and all the feedback of you guys!

  • Retroguy

    I’m an American native English speaker who had a gigantic crush on his high school German teacher. I have no advice on British usage, other than that I think they all talk funny over there, but I will gladly tell you that I love to see German word choice and grammar leaking through into English-language speech and writing by native speakers of German. I think that’s another way of saying to do whatever best to you sounds.

    • Venom

      Very well said. I’m aware that the more complex I build my sentences, the higher the risk is that they sound artificial and stilted (German: “gestelzt”). Somehow it always shines through — it’s not an intentional effect. Your picture of the German way to say things leaking into the English text is quite fitting indeed.

  • LapinDeFer

    The only “stilted” thing we want here are the ponygirls and their dressage…

    For my money a “line” of people would indicate that they are standing one behind the other as in a queue

    A “row” would be an arrangement with people next to each other – like a row of seats in a theatre

    But then I also doesn’t have English as my mother tongue

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