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Don't Cross the Line! Unless It's the Finish Line.


Sam Bennett, of Ireland, crosses the finish line to win the third stage of the Paris Nice cycling race. March 2017. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Now, it’s time for the VOA Learning English program, Words and Their Stories. On this show, we talk about common, expressions in American English.

Today, we will talk about the word “line.” Line is a simple, four-letter word, but it has many meanings, making a simple word complex.

We will begin with an easy expression – in line. Now, you can simply stand in line at a store, bus stop or at a theater. Not many people like standing in a line. But you can also be in line for something important like a job or a job promotion. Being in line for a better job is something most people would like!

Let’s say a friend of yours, Simone, is an accountant. She has a good job and is in line for a promotion at work. Simone doesn’t make much money. So, you hope she gets the high-level, better paying position.

But, Simone doesn’t feel the same way. She has dreams of becoming a professional singer. She takes voice lessons every night and joins a singing group on the weekends. These activities change her lifestyle. She stays out late at night and comes in late to work. And she often sings at her desk! This behavior puts the likelihood of her promotion on the line.

Something “on the line” is at a critical point or is at risk. Sometimes when using this expression, a person simply says there is a lot on the line or too much on the line, meaning that much can be lost.

But let’s get back to Simone.

You begin to feel worried about her double life as a singer. You just don’t think it is realistic. You want to tell Simone to fall in line, to follow the rules of her office. You remind your friend that her office has a hard line when it comes to showing up on time for work.

A “hard line” means a severe, uncompromising way of acting. A hard-liner is someone who sticks to some policy or rule. So, her boss is a hard-liner when it comes to showing up for work on time. He also doesn’t like the accountants singing in front of the clients.

But Simone doesn’t listen. In fact, things get worse. She often leaves town for weeks at a time, touring around the country with her singing group. Now, her job is really on the line.

You walk the line between warning her about landing on the unemployment line and respecting her privacy. The expression “walk the line” has two meanings. One is to hold a position, usually on middle ground, between two very different choices.

The other meaning of walk the line is the one Johnny Cash sings about. In his song, he sings about behaving well with the love of his life.

Johnny Cash album cover for "Out Among the Stars"
Johnny Cash album cover for "Out Among the Stars"

“I find it very, very easy to be true.
I find myself alone when each day is through.
Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you.
Because you're mine, I walk the line.”

There is a fine line between wanting to help someone and interfering. A “fine line” means a very small difference.

After thinking about it, you decide to lay it on the line! To lay it on the line means to talk very openly with someone. Often it is something that the person may not want to hear.

So, you pull Simone aside and privately say, “Look. I’m going to lay it on the line for you. You need to take your job more seriously. Your whole career is on the line!” Or something along those lines. “Along those lines” means “something like that.”

At first, she seems thankful that you care so much. Then she tells you not to worry. A music producer, she says, offered her singing group a record deal! You don’t believe her. You say, “Don’t give me that line!” When you give, hand or even feed someone a line, you are not telling that person the truth.

But be careful. “Giving a line” to someone is much different from giving or getting a line on someone. When you give or get a line on someone or something you have given or gotten information on that person or that thing. For example, if I say “the librarian gave me a line on some great books” it means she gave me some information on some great books.

So, the preposition “on” is very important in this expression. And you didn’t use “on” when you talked to Simone. So, she shouts back, “I’m not giving you a line. And how dare you accuse me of lying! You have crossed the line!”

When you “cross the line,” you have gone too far in either your comments or your behavior.

Now, you tell her that watching a friend ruin her career is where you draw the line. That is your limit! This is similar to drawing a line in the sand. Again, it is a point you are not willing to go beyond.

The bottom line is that you care about Simone and are worried about her. Here, the “bottom line” means the most important thing.

After this fight, Simone treats you differently. She doesn’t answer your calls and doesn’t ride to work with you anymore. When you ask what is wrong, she simply says, “Nothing.”

But you can read between the lines. You know there is something wrong even if she won’t tell you directly. “Reading between the lines” means you to try to understand something that is not openly communicated.

After thinking about it, you realize that your comments were out of line. They were hurtful and unacceptable. Perhaps down the line she will forgive you. But not right away – maybe sometime in the future.

Simone’s silence goes on for months. Then somewhere along the line -- you’re not sure when -- she seems to disappear from your life completely. You accept the fact that your friendship with Simone has reached the end of the line. It’s the end of the friendship.

Then one day, she drops you a line! She writes you a letter, saying she forgives you. Included with the letter is a package and a set of tickets. Simone sent you her singing group’s new CD and two front row seats to their concert!

Now, we are at the end of the line for this Words and Their Stories. Drop us a line and let us know when you thought of this program.

I’m Anna Matteo.

“There’s a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend. There’s a fine, fine line between reality and pretend. And you never know ‘till you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb. There’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time.”

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from the musical Avenue Q.

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Words in This Story

uncompromising adj. not willing to change a decision, opinion, method, etc. : not willing to make or accept a compromise

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