A recent query raised the specter of rein vs. reign under the guise of the question: Which is correct, free rein or free reign?
Okay, so here’s the deal: Reins are used to curb horses, reign refers to the term of a monarch. So when you are talking about giving someone or something unlimited scope, the correct answer is you are giving them free rein. Think of it this way: when you pull on the reins, the horse slows down or stops. When you loosen them, the horse goes. So it is with rein in and free rein.
As Bryan Garner writes, “The allusion is to horses, not kings. But some writers have apparently forgotten the allusion.” To illustrate, a Google search for free reign yields more than two million results, and reign in yields an astonishing six million plus results. Which raises the question: why shouldn’t free reign be correct? If a king reigns, and a king can pretty much do whatever he wants (I’m thinking, right?), then wouldn’t free reign be a plausible way of expressing that a person has unlimited scope?
This reminds me of the comments I have gotten over the years to a post I wrote about adieu vs. ado, in which I responded to the question: Which is correct, without further ado or without further adieu? Strictly speaking, without further ado is correct, but those supporters of without further adieu have borderline plausability on their side, so it’s hard to dissuade them of their perspective. So it is, I think, with free reign. Unfortunately, plausability doesn’t make it right, although there’s always the question of whether common usage will make something correct over time: is free reign a losing battle?