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What Does It Mean to "Draw the Line"?

Jim B.
Jim B.

"Draw the line" is an English expression used to describe the setting of a boundary, usually for behavior, expense, patience, or some other personal expression of patience. It is intended to convey finality in terms of what the person speaking it will allow before responding to correct the situation. This phrase is closely related to the similar idiom "draw a line in the sand", which has a much more antagonistic connotation than the simple form of the phrase. The origins of "draw the line" are a bit cloudy, since there are references to it in terms of both sporting events and war dating back hundreds of years.

An idiom is a simple phrase or expression with a meaning that has grown through popular usage far beyond the literal meaning of the words. For example, when someone says that she has a broken heart, she does not actually have a broken heart. Instead, she is making a colorful reference to a state of sadness. Idioms are used for practically every aspect of life, and they allow for speakers to communicate with other members of their culture who are aware of the intended meaning of these phrases. "Draw the line" is one such particularly powerful idiom.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

When someone uses this specific idiom, it means he or she has become fed up with some situation and is finally setting up boundaries. The implication is that there is a limit to which the person will allow the situation to go, and he or she will allow it to go no further. For example, a parent might say to his children, "You can go out until 11:00, but then you have to come home, because that is where I draw the line."

From the phrase "draw the line", another idiom, "draw a line in the sand", has emerged. Their meanings are similar, but "draw a line in the sand" generally has a bit more menace attached to it. The implication with "draw a line in the sand" is that a person is ready to react with severity should anyone try to cross that imaginary line. For example, consider the sentence, "He drew a line in the sand concerning his expectations, and no one dared to cross it."

It is difficult to pinpoint the origins of the phrase "draw the line." Boxing and tennis, in the distant past, both required the actual drawing of lines to set boundaries for the competitors. As for "draw a line in the sand,", there are references to it in war accounts dating back as far as the Roman Empire.

Discussion Comments


My daughter graduated college last year, and she has had a tough time finding work. She and her little fluffy dog have been staying with us, and we’ve been supporting both of them.

I have no problem paying for my daughter’s food and cell phone, and I don’t mind paying for yearly shots and heartworm prevention for her dog. However, I draw the line at doggie manicures.

The vet clinic that my daughter goes to doubles as a doggie spa. They offer ridiculous things like massages and manicures for pets, and they cost just about as much as human treatments do.

My daughter wanted to get her poodle’s nails painted, and I drew the line. I told her to get its nails clipped like regular dogs do, and anything beyond that would not be funded by me.


I know that this idiom refers to setting limits, but when I hear the words “draw the line,” I picture a kindergarten student trying to form the parts of a letter for the first time.

This is probably because my mother is a kindergarten teacher. I have helped her as her assistant at times, and I have often heard her telling kids to draw the line this way or that way.

So, I giggle a little at myself when this mental picture pops up as I hear someone say adamantly that they are drawing the line. They are so serious, and that makes this image even funnier to me.


@lighth0se33 - Some people just don’t know when to stop asking for favors. I had a boyfriend like that, and because I didn’t want to lose him, I did a lot for him.

I basically supported him for nine months. He did nothing all day while I worked. He didn’t even keep the place clean, and this really annoyed me, but I kept quiet about it.

When he told me that his ex-girlfriend needed a place to stay because she had just lost her job and he wanted her to stay with us, I drew the line. A girl’s got to have some respect for herself, and if I had let her stay there, I would have felt like a complete doormat.


My sister had a friend who was always pushing the boundaries of their friendship. This girl was very demanding, and she had a way about her that made people want to do things for her.

My sister had been manipulated into doing things for her that were just outrageous, like driving her to work every day fifteen miles out of the way and helping to pay her credit card bill. She knew that this was a bit much, but she really didn’t want to seem like the bad guy by saying no.

One day, my sister finally found something that she absolutely would not do for her friend. The girl asked her to go on a blind date with a guy that her mother had set her up with, since she didn’t want to go. She wanted my friend to pretend to be her to get her mother off her back.

I was so proud of my sister when she told her that she would do a lot for her, but this is where she drew the line. The girl threw a little tantrum, but my sister would not budge.

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