Nuscha took me to task the other day for citing Google search results in my discussion of free rein and the frequent mistaken rendering of it as “free reign.”
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.
When I use Google search results to illustrate a discussion of usage, it is never my intention to suggest that the frequency of an error on the web is an argument for the acceptance of the error.
As far as I’m concerned, five billion examples of
Me and my friends slept late.
are five billion errors committed by lazy and/or ignorant writers.
Figurative expressions, however, are not in the same category as misspellings or grammatical errors.
Figurative language originates in the imagination. Our imaginations are furnished with images that arise from the culture in which we live. When I hear the expression free rein, the image in my mind is that of a horse being given its head. Someone else, however, imagines a king who is able to do anything he wants to. The images differ, but the meaning of the expression remains the same.
For the record, I’m not arguing for the acceptance of “free reign.” In my mind it will always be incorrect.
Nevertheless, language changes. It changes regardless of a society’s educational system. In this period when English is not being being taught efficiently to native speakers, change is bound to be more rapid than in previous generations.
If you haven’t looked at it yet, watch the ABC video clip mentioned in the free rein/free reign post. In it OED editor Ben Zimmer tells how OED researchers scanned a billion words from blogs, websites and other internet sources to arrive at the conclusion that “free reign” has become an acceptable variant of free rein.
Nobody says we have to like it.