Mighty Red Pen

September 19, 2011

Let it rein, let it reign: rein vs. reign

Filed under: Grammar goddess — mighty red pen @ 5:05 pm

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?

In the meantime, h/t to Kory Stamper of Merriam Webster for sharing her video response to the question. Be sure to watch it all the way through, there’s a dramatic twist (gasp!) at the end.



  1. Huh. I’m not seeing how “without further adieu” is even close to being plausible. But some people have an awfully hard time letting go of their old mumpsimus in favor of a new sumpsimus.

    Comment by Jonathon — September 19, 2011 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  2. The confusion with adieu and ado could also be because people don’t actually know French, so they throw in words incorrectly. I have a friend who often writes, “Oh contraire!” It’s kind of cute, and there’s also a case for writing it that way as an exclamation, although it is not the correct French spelling.

    Thanks for learnin’ me some new words with mumpsimus and sumpsimus, Jonathon!

    Comment by Val S. — September 20, 2011 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

  3. I’ve never understood the confusion between “rein” and “reign.” But the writers at Yahoo have no idea that they are actually two different words. They’ve used “Mubarak’s three-decade rein,” “takes the reigns,” “reign in,” “free reign,” “reining queens” and “reins supreme.” The only thing they seem to understand is that none of those tidbits should use the word “rain.” Oh, so maybe it’s not so bad after all.

    Comment by Laura — September 21, 2011 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  4. You’ve written “plausability” at least twice in this post.

    Comment by johnesh — March 15, 2012 @ 4:19 am | Reply

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