‘There’s a Thin Line Between’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on January 24, 2023

What does it mean when someone says ‘there’s a thin line between’ two different things? What is the implication of this phrase?

‘There’s a thin line between’ something and something else means that there is a very fine division between two separate things that can actually be deceptively similar. In reality, one of these things is worse or less desirable than the other. It is also commonly used to compare two things that are typically seen as opposites but that are actually surprisingly similar.

What Does 'There's a Thin Line Between' Mean?

The phrase ‘there’s a thin line between’ something and something else means that there is a very narrow division between two things that are deceptively similar, but one is worse than the other.

It’s common for the two objects that are being compared to be typically considered opposites, such as the ‘thin line between’ love and hate or the ‘thin line between’ pleasure and pain.

You may also hear the phrase ‘there is a fine line between’ something and something else with the same meaning as 'there is a thin line between' two things.

For example, let’s say that you and your friend are talking about a book you both recently read, and your friend feels that the story was heartfelt and deeply touching. If you thought that the book was overly sentimental, you might say something along the lines of “‘there’s a thin line between’ a story being emotionally rich and downright corny.”

Another example would be if your sibling took something from your room only to claim that they were only borrowing it. If you feel like it was wrong that they took it without asking and that there was a slim chance they were ever going to return it, you might say “‘there’s a thin line between’ borrowing something and outright stealing it!”

Where Does 'There's a Thin Line Between' Come From?

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, both the phrases ‘a fine line between’ and ‘a thin line between’ slowly started to pick up in usage in the early to mid-1900s. ‘A fine line between’ is a more common phrase in books, with usage increasing around 1970.

In 1971, the New York City-based R&B singing group, The Persuaders, released a song by the name of “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” It is a song that tells the story of a man that frequently came home early in the morning to his understanding wife. As the song progresses, the man ends up finding himself bandaged from head to toe in a hospital bed.

This song was the biggest hit the group ever had, reaching the number 15 spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Many musical acts have since covered the song, including The Pretenders, B.B. Seaton, Annie Lenox, and H-Town.

There was also an American comedy thriller film released in 1996 called A Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” Starring Martin Lawrence and Lynn Whitfield, the movie tells the tale of a ladies’ man that ends up with an obsessed lover that stalks him.

A variety of this phrase can be found in W. Somerset Mugham’s work The Razor’s Edge, in the lines:

A thin line separates love from hate, success from failure, life from death, a line as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”

The 20th-century American pianist, conductor, composer, TV talk show host, actor, and comedian Oscar Levant was also once quoted using this phrase, stating:

There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

– Oscar Levant 

It isn’t entirely clear when the phrase was first used, but one of the earliest examples of the concept in writing comes from John Dryden’s poem entitled “Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music” from 1697. One of the lines of the poem reads:

“Great wits are sure to madness near alli'd And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Quotes That Include the Phrase ‘There’s a Thin Line Between’

In addition to the quotes in the above section, a number of other well-known quotes use the phrase ‘there’s a thin line between’ or some variation of this concept. Here are a few examples:

“Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.”

– Hunter S. Thompson

“There is a very fine line between loving life and being greedy for it.”

– Maya Angelou

“There's a very fine line between pleasure and pain. They are two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other.”

– E. L. James

“There's a thin line between to laugh with and to laugh at.”

– Richard Pryor

“There's a fine line between the Method actor and the schizophrenic.”

– Nicolas Cage

“There is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal. The best cops are always crossed. The best cops are the ones who are able to think like criminals. But for a quirk of fate, they might have been criminals.”

– William Friedkin

“It's a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.”

– Jimmy Buffett

“I have often marveled at the thin line which separates success from failure.”

– Ernest Shackleton

Examples of 'There's a Thin Line Between' In Sentences

How would you use ‘there’s a thin line between’ in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “Jackie still acts like she’s in high school. I think it’s great that she hasn’t lost her youthful energy, but there’s a thin line between staying young at heart and simply refusing to grow up.”
  • “I really can’t stand hanging out with John. There’s a thin line between being friendly and just being fake.”
  • “She said she might leave him if he actually goes through with it. If I remember correctly, her exact quote was, ‘there’s a thin line between bravery and recklessness.’”
  • “Randall got chewed out at the office today. The boss told him that there’s a thin line between doing a thorough job and dragging your feet.”
  • “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t think you should go out with her anymore. There’s a thin line between being the life of the party and extremely personally unstable.”
  • “This is not a situation where you want to just flip a coin– you should really think through your options. There’s a thin line between being spontaneous and simply being foolish.”

Are you eager to learn more English phrases? Make sure you check out our idioms blog!

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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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