• 2-minute read
  • 11th May 2017

Idiom Corner: Free Rein or Free Reign?

Today in Idiom Corner, we’re looking at a common expression: ‘free rein’. Or should that be spelled ‘free reign’? In short, no: ‘free rein’ is the original and correct term here.

Nevertheless, these phrases are now used almost interchangeably. But why? And does ‘free reign’ even mean anything? Fear not, for all shall be revealed!

Free Rein (Freedom to Do or Say What You Want)

If you give someone ‘free rein’, you’re giving them permission to do whatever they want:

The band were given free rein in the studio, so they experimented with some weird sounds.

‘Rein’ refers to the straps used to control a horse. ‘Free rein’ is a metaphor based on loosening these straps to give the horse more freedom to move.

Horse power.
(Photo: WolfBlur)

Rein vs. Reign

‘Reign’ is pronounced exactly the same as ‘rein’, so they are often confused. But ‘reign’ refers to a monarch’s period of rule. It can be used as either a noun or a verb:

Noun: The king’s reign was short and bloody.

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Verb: Queen Elizabeth II reigns over the Commonwealth.

And because the phrase ‘free reign’ sort of makes sense (i.e. the freedom to act like a king or queen), many people assume that this is the correct spelling.

You’d think as king he’d have had a more flattering portrait.

Another homonym (i.e. word that sounds the same) is ‘rain’, which refers to wet weather. But confusing ‘free rein’ and ‘free rain’ is fairly rare!

Free Rein or Free Reign?

When speaking, there’s no choice to make, since both are pronounced the same. Nobody can climb into your head to make sure you’re using the right version of ‘rein’!

In writing, however, the mistake is obvious. Always use ‘free rein’ if you want to make a good impression in your work. And if it helps, remember that ‘rein’ is related to horses, while ‘reign’ relates to the monarchy!

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