Free Rein or Free Reign?

By Maeve Maddox

This from laura Killian:

I have found examples of two spellings of the expression : to give free rein / reign to sb / sth. I assume that ‘rein’ is the correct spelling, as in loosening the reins of a horse. But has there been enough contamination through the idea of reigning or ruling that both are accepted now? Do you know the history of this expression?

The spelling “reign” in this expression is an example of the triumph of folk etymology over origin.

The expression to give free rein to is figurative. It means to give a person freedom to act on his own authority. It derives from an equestrian term:

free rein – a rein held loosely to allow a horse free motion; the freedom that this gives a horse. (OED)

The word rein derives from a word meaning “a bond, check” from a verb meaning “to hold back. It’s related to retain.

The word reign derives from a Latin word for kingship. To reign means to exercise the power of a king. The sense of this “reign” has become conflated with the expression “to give free rein to.”

The confusion has become so complete that it’s beyond correction.

A Google search for “free reign” brought 5,010,000 hits, including references to a rock group and a religious ministries site.

A search for “free rein” garnered only 806,000 hits.

I shall continue to write free rein, but “free reign” is here to stay.

ADDENDUM
Reader David Duberman takes exception to my Google search results:

Which Google are you searching? There’s only one that I know of, and my results with it are markedly different from yours. You are using quotes in your search phrase, aren’t you? You do realize that not using quotes yields results that have the two words on the same page, but not necessarily next to each other, don’t you?

Results 1 – 10 of about 1,230,000 for “free rein”
Results 1 – 10 of about 940,000 for “free reign”.
I suggest issuing a retraction.

I must plead guilty to not using quotation marks in my search for free rein and free reign.

But I’ve got to ask David which Google search he’s using! I don’t claim to be very tech savvy so I may still be doing something wrong. My new search with the quotation marks yielded these results:

“free rein” 681,000
“free reign” 531,000

Either way, free rein wins. Which is great in my book.

However, Google searches can reflect trends in usage and usage drives acceptance.

Everybody have a look at this video clip in the ABC NEWS archives for October 16, 2007 and see what the OED lexicographers have already decided about free rein vs free reign.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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48 Responses to “Free Rein or Free Reign?”

  • dirtywhitecandy

    I see this mistake all the time and it drives me nuts. Free rein is correct, because the phrase is derived from equestrianism. It has nothing to do with ruling anything. The Google consensus is depressing, though no indication of correctness. You would probably find millions of incidences of greengrocer’s apostrophe, if only there was a way to google for that, and that will never be correct.

  • JamesD

    Thanks for the useful info. It’s so interesting

  • Nuscha

    Thank you, Dirtywhitecandy, for pointing that out.
    I like this site a lot, but I am often grinding my teeth when I read “well, looking at Google, we have 5,000,000,000 hits with this spelling, so …”
    Just because a majority of people on the internet cannot spell or cannot be bothered to spell, does still not make the writing of the word any more correct. :-/ Gaaaah.

    We all make typos and mistakes, especially in this fast medium. But to me, as an editor, a lot of what I see on the internet looks simply as if the author of the text does not care for it at all. I know that editors have the professional hazard of looking at texts too critically, but still …

    I am also jaded from playing SL and chatting. I used to think that I as a non-native speaker could not keep up. But what I have seen over the past three years in writing from American and British players honestly knocked me out of my socks. (And “rein”/”reign” is a good example.)
    And not only in the quick-online writing, where you slam out sentences to keep up with a scene, but also in their short stories that they uploaded to a social network site we share.

    If you had the same kind of spelling (and punctuation, by the way) as a German kid, your grades would plummet, unless you had a proven reading/writing disorder. And even that only gets you excused only so far here. Ca. 50% here you get for your oral input and ideas in class, 50% for your written work. So if you write shitty but want a good grade, you have to be really excellent verbally. Which is a tough, but also good training for kids, I think. Having said that: Spelling on German internet sites is just as bad %-)

  • Deborah H

    I grew up in horse-centric West Texas so there was never any doubt about the meaning of free rein.

  • CC

    Well, in the past, kings did ride on horseback…

  • Maeve

    Check out the video clip I mention in the addendum to this post.

  • Cat

    I have to say, the changes that they talk about in that video drive me up the wall. Maybe I’m just a stickler – but I don’t want to think that just because I, say, and a whole bunch of my friends, don’t know the correct spelling of a phrase, suddenly our bastardization of it becomes acceptable. If I was an editor or a copy-editor and saw “free reign” in a manuscript, I don’t care if the OEDers have decided to make it okay, I’m going to fix it back to free rein. If I don’t, I run the risk of everyone who knows the original way thinking that I’m a doofus. If I do, those that weren’t aware that it didn’t take a g will now learn that it doesn’t.

    Plus ‘free reign’ just doesn’t make sense to me. Monarchs have always had the freedom to rule as they see fit; it’s the definition of monarchy. Whereas usually a rein is used to restrict freedom. Without the tension between the two words, the usefulness and meaning of the phrase is lost.

  • Dog

    I agree with Cat. “Free reign” is redundant

  • John

    I pefer free rain.

  • BobM

    Cat,

    As long as we ‘re being sticklers about spelling, usage, syntax, and the like, perhaps you would like to change “If I was an editor…” to “If I were an editor…”. Sorry for the pedantry, but my high school English teacher and Strunk & White had a lasting influence on me.

    (By the way, in case you’re interested, the usage of the comma between the second and third terms of the series above is perfectly acceptable, and is the preferred punctuation of strict traditionalists.)

  • Kathryn

    No, no! If you Google “free rein” and “free reign” in quotes, meaning that the phrase appears not just the individual words, then the original, correct meaning gets more hits. When I see free reign in writing, I just see wrong.

  • Reader

    I think David Duberman’s tone is really obnoxious: “you are doing x, aren’t you? You do know y, don’t you?” Yikes.

  • Simon P

    I guess the real problem here is that if you don’t know whether the correct answer is ‘rein’ or ‘reign’, then you might plump for ‘reign’ as it kind of makes sense in the context of the meaning of the phrase, i.e. to be able to do what you want.

    It’s reining men, Hallelujah!

  • A. M. Harte

    I just wrote “free rein” in a story, and then had an inkling of doubt between rein/reign and ended up googling it.

    I generally stick to using rein, but I could see how it would be interesting/funny to use reign in certain cases, e.g. “The boy was given free reign of the Kingdom of Grammar.”

    David’s letter and your reply made me google “free rein” and “free reign” as well – only to get different results for the third time!! I got:

    Results 1 – 10 of about 1,160,000 for “free rein”
    Results 1 – 10 of about 485,000 for “free reign”

    (does Safesearch being on make a difference?)

    Then again, I’m using the English Google, and everyone knows that if you don’t give it tea promptly at half eleven it doesn’t work properly. 😉

  • Alice

    Thank you for this post – my first instinct was “rein,” so I guess I was right. Interesting how language changes with time…

    Also, you’re all using the same Google, but Google’s search bots don’t always search the same pages of the Internet each time someone searches, even with the same terms. It depends how many other people are searching, which of their several servers is getting the least traffic, which pages it’s searched before or has to search anew, how many new pages are going up over time, and a number of other factors.

    My results:
    “free rein” : 860,000
    “free reign” : 542,000
    And I’m using the Canadian version.

    Google is not comprehensive and does not search the whole web, or even most of the web. It just utilizes the most comprehensive search allegory we have right now.

  • JB

    This article is an excellent example of the tyrrany of the majority. The simple fact that a majority of people hold a collective opinion does not make said opinion factual.

  • Walter Kamphoefner

    It’s worse than you realize:
    “On health care, some like Mr. Galston argued that Mr. Obama took the Clinton lesson too far by giving Congress too much free reign.”
    “Is President Obama Fulfilling Clinton’s Promise?” By PETER BAKER
    New York Times: April 2, 2010.

  • Cletus

    Y’all a buncha dufuses’; who kars’~

  • zymerati

    Alice dear — search allegory??? it’s “search algorythm,” you silly language nerd!! but it did give me a great laugh, so you’re forgiven, LOL!!

    now, Alice’s mistake above is funny, but not troubling. The truly scary part of this page is the collective lack of a sense of the subjunctive tense! It’s not “if I *was* king….” it’s “if I **WERE** king…. fingernails on the chalkboard material!!!

    anyway, if I were king, I’d give the peasants neither free rein nor free reign, LOL!!

  • Pragmat

    What does it really matter? Sayings and idioms are inevitably subject to change in all societies, and become warped and “corrupt” from a traditional point of view, but they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t serve a purpose.
    “Free reign” is a deviation, obviously, but its meaning is essentially the same. Pedantry is cool and all, but it very rarely matters in real life. It’s nothing to get hung up out about.
    Most people don’t know the disturbing origin of the phrase “rule of thumb”, but so what? Does that alter its meaning when its said?
    No, no its doesn’t.
    There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your studious mastery of literary and etymological esoterica, but its nothing to be… arrogant about. You know who you are deep down.
    It’s good to know but it doesn’t matter. There are much more important things in life than nit-picking irrelevant crap.

    That said, I will continue to say free reign.

  • tigtog

    Pragmat, since you left your comment in May you’re probably long gone, but for the record, if you think that the phrase “the rule of thumb” has a disturbing origin then you have fallen for an urban etymology legend.

    The Straight Dope has the real story, which is that it is what most people always thought it was, a phrase from carpentry about rough measuring.

  • PedantQueen

    zymerati : the subjunctive is not a tense, really, I was taught it is a mood. (Yeah, I get really moody if I see “free reign” too .. just alowing my inner pedant a little playtime.) To remind myself, I’ve just looked it up .. Wikipedia says “Currently identified moods include conditional, imperative, indicative, injunctive, optative, potential, subjunctive, and more.” Of course English doesn’t really have all these, or should I say it doesn’t classify utterances that way? Unless someone uses a form that seems odd to the uneducated ear, most people wouldn’t notice the subjunctive or donditional unless it bit them, e.g. “Unless he were to use ..” would hit hard on an uneducated ear, because it looks and sounds just as if the speaker had used the plural form with a singular subject.

  • PedantQueen

    Apologies for typos.

  • Jose Rizal

    I don’t think anyone has addressed the “free range” aspect of this where chicken have control of their own destiny.

    Is it free range, free reign or free rein?

  • Maeve

    @Jose
    The expression “free range” refers to the fact that the chicken is free to roam over an open area.

    The area in which an animal lives and finds food is called its “range.” For example, a male raccoon has a range of up to 20 square miles.

  • Julia Dawson

    Does the female raccoon have to stay at home?

  • Judy

    Actually, it’s “algorithm”

  • Guinnevere

    I hate to admit it, but I’ve also reached the conclusion that it’s too late to correct the problem. Editors of books and magazines and newspapers, as well as teachers, have reached a level of illiteracy that is nearly as low as that of the people they are supposed to be guiding.

    Some of it, I suppose, can be blamed on electronic spell-checking programs that can’t tell the difference between homonyms as long as there… their… THEY’RE not misspelled in themselves (“thur?” … “thar?”). Typographical errors do happen, and often they spell a real word that merely does not fit the context.

    Some of it, on the other hand, consists of teachers and editors who declare “I could care less!” when they mean the opposite: that they don’t care at all and therefore could NOT care less. Or that one has “a hard road to hoe,” instead of hoeing a ROW of a garden, or (my personal nightmare) that they want to “Hone in” on an objective. Indeed, I have been “corrected” by people who ought to know better, when I use the correct phrase, “HOME in.” (As a homing pigeon would do; I’ve never heard of a “honing” pigeon.)

    The mangled phrases are now in such general use that they’re included in dictionaries and thesauri as acceptable.

    I’ve used phrases without knowing the correct etymology of the words. “A flash in the pan” is one of them, but while I knew it applied to a fruitless endeavor that had showed early promise, I did not know that it originated from old firearms that could ignite the powder in the pan but not fire the main charge. I imagined a different source, having to do with panning for gold, until the true source was explained to me.

    I think that’s the main part of the problem: with no one to teach the correct spelling or source of a saying, people make up their own explanations and usually they’re wrong. Then the imaginary definition falls into such common use that in time no one remembers the real or original meaning.

  • chris

    @Guinnevere – “…Some of it, on the other hand, consists of teachers and editors who declare “I could care less!” when they mean the opposite: that they don’t care at all and therefore could NOT care less…”

    Amen! That phrase used in the opposite drives me nuts!

  • Jeff

    I’m sorry, but no, Pragmat. It doesn’t mean essentially the same. In fact the “essence”, or what it means “at root”, is entirely different. Only superficially do the meanings overlap. And that is the problem.

    The richness and significance of language actually comes from deep down. That is what is important.

    The rein is something that normally is restraining. And “free rein” does not even mean what the ABC clip shows. It’s not dropping the reins. It’s intentionally leaving the reins slack while still holding them. As such, it has a deep meaning of a granted release from the usual permanent control, while the former controller still rides along, and could take up the reins again at any time.

    “Free reign” is just an ugly redundant construction. What would an unfree reign be?

    Similar issues with the other terms in the video. “Vocal chord” is an oxymoron because a person can only vocalize one note at a time. “Shoe-in” is just a confused version of “foot in the door” and has none of the connotations of “ease” that the correct version does.

    This is not nit-picking at all. It’s pointing out the extreme loss of richness that results from careless and erroneous usage. And the ignorant disrespect of language that type of usage represents.

    Since I’m watching “Bridge over the River Kwai” again, here’s an analogy: you’re Saito and the so-called “nit-pickers” are Nicholson.

  • Kate

    Language is not concrete, so stop thinking of it as such.

    Words gain new meanings all the time.

    As anyone versed at all in communication knows, meanings are in people, not in words.

  • Brian

    @Kate

    You’re right that words are made for people and not people for words, but I still think the above degeneration of “free rein” to “free reign” is tragic. I say that because “free reign” is just a weak idiom.

    “Free rein” possesses real, rich symbolic power as an idiom, whereas “free reign” means…what? It is hard to derive a cogent analogy for “free reign”, even for pragmatists. It is a deadening of our language when it loses layers of meaning. At least, so long as it loses those layers without replacing them with new connections and nuances of expression. I don’t see any new layers or connections from free reign. Just negligent writing.

  • ridley

    I love the original “free rein” spelling of the phrase. Partly because of having read the horsey book “Hold The Rein Free” as an impressionable child. But also because, if you know horses at all, “free rein” has a very powerful imagery behind it that “free reign” utterly lacks. As a onetime rider I have vivid memories of giving horses free rein, usually in one in 3 situations. (1) You’ve just finished your lessons/workout/show/whatever, you give your horse free rein as you’re coming out of the ring, and your horse instantly knows that its workout is over. It streeeetches its neck down, and slows into a meandering saunter….it gives a big happy sigh… happy horse! (2) You’re riding a fresh horse who really wants to run. You reach the racetrack/beach/whatever, you give your horse free rein and BOOM! Off like a shot of lightning! (This is one of the single most exciting sensations in the world.) (3) You know your horse so well and trust it so much, and your horse knows and trusts you so well, that you give it free rein right in the middle of whatever you’re doing (trailriding/whatever), simply handing over command to the horse. 9 times out of 10 the horse doesn’t let you down but carries on about its task with sensible good judgment and a better work ethic than most people would show. t’s a really sweet moment to reach that level of mutual trust with a new horse.

    In any of those three situations there is a powerful sense that you are very deliberately handing over control to the horse. And the horses most definitely know it.

    “Free reign” seems unbearably bland in comparison.

  • Linda

    My personal bete noir (sorry, I can’t find the circumflex — or circonflex as the French would have it — to put over the “e”) is “flush it out” when people mean “flesh it out.” It bothers me so much I will stop a meeting and correct the flusher. They probably are thinking of flushing out a covey of quail and not flushing the toilet, ick. But it’s still wrong. And yes, fleshing out a skeletal concept is kind of icky too, but…

    Oh here’s another one: “step foot” as in “He won’t step foot in her house again.” Arghhhh! These people have conflated step with set foot — and there you are: a monstrosity. What else would one “step” with? Step hand? Step face? Step gluteus maximus? You can’t even “step” a foot. You step. You set foot.

    Whew, glad I got that off my ….

    I just read “free reign” in a book I had been enjoying. After that phrase bit me, I had to google it, and that’s how I got here. Step foot indeed. Free reign indeed.

  • Steve

    Does “free reign” or “free rein” matter?

    You bet it does!

    I recently wrote content in an advertising campaign, telling people to pressure their government to “reign in” something. What I really meant was for them to “rein in …” and so I completely distorted the intended meaning.

    Own goal. Shot in foot.

  • Stephen Sanders

    I am so glad I found this. It seems that in matters of certain areas including basics of usage and grammar, it often simply no longer matters what is correct or not.

    In the ever shifting world of I simply have termed “Social Tropism” the thing (for better or worse) what matters most is not simply what is correct, but rather what “most people” think is correct.

    Utilizing a word’s multiple connotations as an aspect of what makes the writing process so expansive and rich. I suppose that Google plays a huge role in this Paradigm-Shift info by making all these “new statistics” available with a few simple keystrokes.

    Conclusion: “What do you want, good grammar or strong SEO?”- Stephen C. Sanders, Jan 10, 2012, 1:32pm EST

    Stephen C. Sanders

  • David de la Fuente

    As far as people getting different Google results, if your browser recognizes you as a registered Google user, you’re getting different results than anyone else in the world. Google’s analytics and algorithms are tailored to individual users, as I learned in Eli Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble,” and that’s why everyone’s numbers are different above. (The book laments this trend, saying that serendipity and exposure to new ideas is lost when Google and other sites like news and entertainment learn to give you exactly what you’re looking for first, but that trend, like “free reign,” is here to stay as well.)

  • Maddy

    I was caught out with that one last night at my writers club but further confusion ensued due to the UK/USA make-up in our group. Certainly made for some lively debate.

  • Kara

    I know I’m a little late to the game, just found this website after doing a google search after seeing the same argument on another website.

    My question is, can’t a person just say whatever the crud they want to say? Sometimes people say something that sounds like a common saying that has been bastardized, but really they are just saying what they mean, not trying to use the saying!

    I understand both “Free reign” and “Free rein” to have perfectly sound meanings in their own right and it seems both can be used just in different contexts. Note that the definition I find for reign has nothing to do with absolute authority, merely a monarchy or rule. And often times a monarchy or ruling has checks and balances (at least in current days) and thus they are not free to do whatever they want.

    Let’s say my boss gives me a project to do and rather than tells me exactly how to do it says “you have free rein on this one.” That makes sense. He is loosening his normal control of me to let me have some supervised free time. Like letting a dog off leash in a fenced area.

    On the other hand perhaps the dean or president of a college is making a decision on what to do about the pervasive pot-smoking epidemic on campus. The board of trustees or board or directors or whomever, tell the president/dean “You have free reign on this one!” Because they are giving him/her complete control and allowing him/her to make the decision without their input or usual checks and balances.

    Similarly, what would one say if discussing a general who has suddenly declares Marshall law and does anything he can to control the citizens? I personally would say “The general has free reign to beat the citizens into submission”.

    The current Queen of England has reign, but she does not have “free reign”.

    A horse given a free rein is not free to kill its rider, and if it does, my guess is it will be punished. An authority figure given free “reign” can kill citizens without retribution. Two very different meanings.

    I personally will continue to use both depending on the context of the situation, and you nitpickers (oh wait, is that the correct use/spelling/meaning of the saying?) cannot stop me!!! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  • Pat

    Hasn’t been Queen reigning over England for centuries. Last of the title was Queen Anne.
    Elizabeth II is Queen of Great Britain, of Canada, of Austrialia etc etc and as a horsewoman knows when to give the Commonwealth free rein. Some countries became free of her reign by declaring Independence.
    Marsall law and martial law mean quite different things. The first would be a US local peace officer, and the latter means under the military. Unless you are thinking of General Marshall and his Plan for European relief.
    Best way to get a free reign is to be the eldest son and inherit the throne, not to have to marshal your forces and defeat the incumbent in battle..

  • Pat

    More accurately the Queen’s title varies depending on where she is.
    In the UK she is: ‘Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.’
    Here she is the Queen of Canada. She can’t be kicked upstairs to Queen Mother as her mother was, because she rules in her own right and her mum was just Wife-of the King.

    (my spellings of marshall needed verification but was afraid if looked them up I’d lose this interesting chat I stumbled upon.)

  • Joseph Dunphy

    “Plus ‘free reign’ just doesn’t make sense to me. Monarchs have always had the freedom to rule as they see fit; it’s the definition of monarchy.”

    Quite wrong, Cat. Of all of the states in Europe, only in Russia and the Ottoman Empire were the sovereigns absolutely at liberty to do just anything they wished. In the rest of Europe, feudalism did guarantee certain rights to the vassal and place certain obligations on the liege.

  • lindac

    I too despise “could care less.” It has no logical meaning. But neither does ” free reign.” The peoplewhi dont care are the ones who are effing up the English language and proving that the intelligence level in this country is dropping like a stone. As Baryshnikov said, “people judge your intelligence by the way you speak.” And here’s a good one I heard: nip it in the butt.

  • ConnorBehan

    I was surprised to find out that “free rein” was the correct one. Giving people “free rein” is allowing them to do whatever they want. And a monarch who has a “reign” can do whatever he or she wants so “free reign” makes sense also.

  • justhinkin

    They both make sense depending on context. There are many times when I am writing when I use free reign to mean the ability to control something that resembles a territory in the topological sense. Free rein, on the other hand, does not imply “an object” on which “to work”, the difference being rather like the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

    And then again, when my neighbor has his lawn sprinkler carelessly set, I in essence get free rain, too : )

  • GregH

    Both versions end up meaning the same thing, giving something the freedom to act as it would. Therefore, while it may have evolved from the equestrian version the other version has become an accepted alternate. Indeed, I had never happened upon the supposedly “correct” version. Regardless, language is purely what is used by its speakers to convey information. If a large body of people use “reign” it isn’t a mistake, it is simply language evolution.

  • Richard

    Google is indeed useful for doing what linguists used to do the hard way, namely, trying to figure out how people actually use language, and then codifying the results. To be sure, the OED has historically consulted linguistic exemplars, as opposed to the linguistic googlesphere, to represent standards of practice worthy of emulation. Perhaps we are like the elite Korean scholars of the 15th century, who opposed replacing elegant Chinese characters with inelegant phonetic characters. (Literacy then grew so quickly that it frightened the aristocracy, who exhorted the king to put a stop to the madness.) I personally insist on classical correctness, but I do use Google to check for patterns. Unfortunately, today’s Google results depict the following hideous reality:
    678,000 free reign
    605,000 free rein
    380,000 free rain
    12,400 free rane
    11,200 free raine
    5,250 free reighn
    3,930 free rayne
    2,990 free reine
    1,540 free rayn
    342 free reigne
    1 free reighne

  • jen

    As a linguist I would have to say that in my opinion it is, as was previously said, a matter of context. The most important though is to mot be “annoyed” by a spelling because number one it’s a true waste of time and emotion lol, and two, language is forever evolving where the g will remain for some time i wpuld suggest that eventually it will become obsolete leaving your ever loved “rein” standing as the word in either of its contexts as this word is one which as shown above has more than one meaning. In my opinion we should embrace language in all aspects; as it grows AND as it so pertinent that a single non sound producing letter can remain in our grammar until it drives some near crazy lol…we inevitably evolve but when it comes to written language please be patient, we are robot like enough as it is! 🙂

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