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.

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.

51 Responses to “Free Rein or Free Reign?”

  • liao yunquan

    I think the phrase ‘’free reign‘’ is a misspelling of the phrase “free rein” though many people are still using “free reign” to mean “free rein”. In the eyes of a Chinese learning the Enlglish language, I probably would say the different forms of spelling here are very much like those in Chinese characters in some way. There exist hundreds of set phrases which have the same pronunciation but different ways of writing. Then the Chinese scholars stipulate that one form is preferable to the other and publish the report in newspapers or other mass media. Gradually people will follow suit. Even so, some scholars are still arguing about their usage. Languages can be very interesting. What happens to English happens to Chinese, too. Do we need a universal language?

  • stgeorgeschapel

    Those who use “reign” when they actually mean “rein” are not interested in exact meanings. Their writing is usually shallow or flippant; more interested in being “quick” or “cute” or “catchy” than in being accurate. And, they are usually callow and rude to those who point out the error of their ways.

    The reason is (probably) because they speak more than they think. However, I feel obliged to “help” those who don’t know the difference; the curious, or exacting, are grateful, and the obtuse aren’t offended (indeed, they don’t even notice).

    This urge to correct may be a hopeless mission, given the prevalence of casual writing on the Internet. However, I live in fond hope that the world will become a more exacting place, with a reverence for exacting words. (Those who justify the use of incorrect language are more interested in trying to defend what they do, rather than improving their writing skills; they are tilting at windmills, but don’t even know it, since those who care are interested in truth and those who don’t care, don’t care.)

    The same folks who use “reign” will also say, “It’s a tough road to hoe” rather than the correct idiomatic phrase, “it’s a tough ROW to hoe.” [And, don’t even start on “I could care less” (I had a girlfriend back in the 60s who used this phrase, and all the king’s horses couldn’t change her).]

    This demonstrates a basic ignorance of words, or a strange resistance to notice the difference, or to respect the correct words. (I often wonder how much these folks read, or what they think about, or even if they notice different versions of common phrases /well used idioms.)

    I am grateful for my farm background; it didn’t make me a “smarter” person, but I believe it made me a more caring one; someone who knows the value of animals (lesser creatures; G-d’s creatures) in our daily lives.

    On early warm mornings in the spring, just as things are beginning to grow and come alive, after a long cold winter, it is especially rewarding to saddle up, and to point one’s horse toward the stream, but then to give him “free rein” and see where he wants to take you for the day. [My monarchist cousins have NO IDEA what “free reign” could possibly mean; and neither do I.]

    I have had to “hoe” many a “tough row” (and hated it; especially for green beans; I would never grow anything past potatoes, tomatoes, peas, and raspberries) but never a “tough road.” Our roads were gravel; very noisy when fresh laid, and “wash-boards” in the spring, but we NEVER had to hoe them.

  • nate

    I have linguistics training in my background, and I never thought I’d turn into one of those old grouches who remains firmly rooted in the “irrelevant” past, but I will never stoop to accept:
    1. “free reign” over the correct “free rein”,
    2. the bogus misuse of “begs the question” to supposedly mean “brings a new question to mind” instead of the correct “assumes the truth of the result it’s attempting to prove”,
    3. the very existence of a word spelled “yay”.

  • 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! 🙂

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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 : )

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.)

  • 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..

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.)

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Brian


    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.

  • 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.

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