Free Rein or Free Reign?

By Maeve Maddox

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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.

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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?

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