‘Get Your Ducks in a Row’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on August 11, 2023

Did someone tell you to  'get your ducks in a row' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In brief:

  • 'Get your ducks in a row’ is an idiom that means to get organized.
  • This is a commonly used expression with an uncertain origin, potentially coming from a popular 18th-century game, arcade shooting games, or the way that baby ducks line up behind their mother.

What Does 'Get Your Ducks in a Row' Mean?

If you ‘get your ducks in a row,’ it means to get organized. If you ‘have your ducks in a row,’ it means that you are organized and have your affairs in order.

There are a number of different variations of this phrase you might come across, including:

  • Put your ducks in a row
  • Keep your ducks in a row
  • Have your ducks in a row

This phrase can be altered to fit the context of the sentence. For example, you could tell your friend that he needs to ‘get his ducks in a row.’ Similarly, you could describe your own need to get your life in order by saying something along the lines of “I need to ‘get my ducks in a row.’”

Where Does 'Get Your Ducks in a Row' Come From?

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the origin of this idiom.

One theory suggests that it comes from a lawn bowling game that was popular during the 18th century. A part of this game involved setting up ‘duck pins’ in a line.

Another potential origin has to do with mechanical shooting arcades and the way that tin ducks would be lined up for the games.

Finally, another popular theory is that it simply comes from the way that ducklings will line up behind their mother and follow her.

Examples of This Idiom in Print

One of the earliest instances of this phrase being used with the meaning of ‘to get organized’ shows up in an 1889 issue of The Plaindealer:

“In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong.”

Another instance shows up in a publication just a few years later in 1894. This time it shows up in an issue of The Freeman:

“Hayes and his companions were duped; they refused the offers of the Independents and Democrats and Hayes took the stump for the Republican candidate and elected him. It was one year before the Assembly man got his "ducks in a row" and then a National election was on, and the Assembly man was running for the second term.”

For a third example, we look to an article found in the Charlotte Observer from 1907:

“Vice President Fairbanks is having an unhappy time just now in trying to get his ducks in a row for the presidential nomination.”

Examples of This Phrase In Sentences

How would 'get your ducks in a row' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “I received an email from my boss telling me that I need to get my ducks in a row if I want to be assigned this project.”
  • “I apologize for the disorganized way I’ve been approaching this situation. I’m going to step back to get my ducks in a row so we can readdress it in a more organized fashion.”
  • “She’s only a freshman, so I don’t know why you’re being so hard on her about getting her ducks in a row. She has plenty of time to figure out what she wants to do.”
  • “I feel like I used to have my ducks in a row, and now I’m completely discombobulated.”
  • “You know I’m rooting for you, but it’s really time for you to get your ducks in a row.”

Other Ways to Say This Idiom

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to this idiom?

Here are some options:

  • Put/get one’s house in order
  • Line up one’s ducks
  • Put everything in its place
  • Set your affairs in order
  • Get your act together

Final Thoughts About 'Get Your Ducks in a Row'

To ‘get your ducks in a row’ means to put your affairs in order. In short, this is a way to describe getting organized.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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