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Rein or reign? Hold your horses before applying pen to paper…

It wasn’t that many moons ago that horses were an integral part of our daily lives: in war and peace, in commerce and agriculture, they proved their worth by pulling various carts, carriages, and barges or they carried individual riders, from messengers to cavalry, on their backs. Since the dawn of the age of the internal-combustion engine, however, horses have slipped from this prominent place: now they feature chiefly in our leisure activities, whether we enjoy having a flutter on a race or riding purely for pleasure.

Giving a free rein to errors?

The former central role of the horse in our society is reflected by the influence of all things equestrian on our language. From curtail and marshal to put the cart before the horse and curry favour, English is pervaded by either explicit or long-lost references to our equine friends – so much so that we’re now more likely to encounter them linguistically and figuratively rather than literally.

James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, who famously remarked that ‘a horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle’ would no doubt welcome the current situation. But there is a downside. So distanced are we now from real-life horses and their accoutrements such as saddles, bridles, and reins, that when we write it’s not equestrian-related words that necessarily come to mind. This is demonstrated by the fact that we tend to confuse the spelling reign with rein. The two words mean quite different things, but sound the same when you say them: nowadays, the concept of a monarch’s reign seems to have more immediate relevance to us than the reins used to control a horse.

This misinterpretation is most clearly apparent in the phrase ‘free rein’. To give a horse free rein is to hold the reins loosely so as to allow the animal freedom of movement – it’s the opposite of keeping a tight rein on the horse (controlling it closely). The Oxford English Corpus (OEC), the Oxford Dictionaries’ database of over 2 billion words of 21st-century English, shows that when it comes to free rein, over 38% of the total instances are for the misspelling free reign.

Interestingly, lexicographers have traced this common mix-up right back to the 19th century, when the horse still played a full part in our daily lives: the historical Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest occurrence of free reign (noting that it’s a non-standard or unaccepted usage) in 1834, in an American book on children’s diseases (interestingly the first edition of the book had free rein, which had become free reign by the time of the second edition). The modern evidence in the OEC shows this error cropping up in all sorts of writing, both edited and unedited, from newspapers and academic journals to blogs and websites, as demonstrated by the following examples:

X A variety of collaborators were given free reign to create films for each album track.

X Thanks to Mark for pointing out that this does not mean free reign for bloggers to libel people.

There’s obviously a strong tendency in our minds to wish to associate the phrase free rein with allowing a person the freedom of power that some rulers formerly wielded when reigning over their oppressed subjects: I can see the somewhat tenuous logic in this. However, it’s less easy to understand the reasoning behind the misuse of reign in the following examples:

X Now tell me: who has had the real reigns of power in his hands?

X The ‘Cats old skipper, Rick the Ruler, now holds the reigns in Louisville.

X Before she bows out of the top job, Pat said she is prepared to train someone to take over the reigns.

X Having missed out on the Premiership, the club will have to keep a tight reign on expenses.

These mistakes could easily be avoided if you spend some time thinking about it before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). If you think about it, you’ll realize that it’s impossible to keep a tight reign on something in the ‘ruler’s period of power’ sense – it’s clearly based on a metaphor of the way in which you closely control a horse.

Confusion reigns…

Alas, the confusion doesn’t end there: both rein and reign can be used as verbs as well as nouns. As a verb, reign literally means ‘rule as a monarch’:

Queen Elizabeth reigns over the UK.

and has also gained the extended meaning ‘be dominant or the best’: 

All around him, chaos and disorder reigned.

In America, baseball reigns supreme.

Similarly, the verb rein means ‘control a horse by pulling on the reins’:

He reined his horse to a halt.

and has an additional figurative sense, usually seen with the adverbs ‘in’ and ‘back’, of ‘keep someone or something under control’:

He is one of those actors that need a strong director to rein him in.

Christmas is shaping up to be one of the bleakest in years on the high street, as consumers rein back their spending.

As is the case with the corresponding nouns, the evidence on the OEC reveals that reign is often mistakenly used instead of rein:

You must weigh carefully your need to reign in costs against your employees’ needs for adequate health care.

X He started at too fast a tempo for the singers and had to reign it back.

For those of you who like grammar, you might have spotted another difference between rein and reign as verbs. Reign is an intransitive verb which doesn’t take a direct object, whereas rein is transitive, meaning that you’ll always encounter it with an object. Knowing such differences can also help you make the right choice of word.

Time to bridle at incorrect usage?

But all is not lost. To put things into perspective, here are some approximate figures from the OEC which show the extent in which reign as both a noun and a verb is beginning to replace rein in some common phrases:

Reign misused for rein Incorrect examples Correct  examples, using rein Total examples % of errors
the reigns of power 97 445 542 17.9
free reign 792 1254 2046 38.7
take (over) the reigns 417 1877 2294 18.2
tight reign 67 442 509 13.2
reign someone or something back 30 125 155 19.3

As you can see, while over a third of the instances of free rein are incorrect, other mistakes are less common. However, along with many other people, I tend to bridle at all these errors and would like to think that this blog post will go some way towards explaining the difference between rein and reign and curtailing further misunderstandings.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.