Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

If you give someone the freedom to do as he or she chooses, then you are giving that person free rein… or is it free reign?

Both of these terms are pronounced exactly the same way and, if you were to try to derive their respective origins, either word could make sense. However, the common term for the removal of constraints is “free rein” and not “free reign.” You can see how the two terms can be so easily confused.

A rein refers to the narrow strap, usually made of leather, that is used to guide or control a horse when you go horseback riding. Reins are usually used in pairs, but the idea is that it is through the rein that you tell the horse whether you want to turn left, turn right, slow down and so forth. Taken as a verb, you could also say that you are trying to “rein in” a horse when you pull back on the reins to slow down.

A reign, on the other hand, prefers to the period of time during which a particular king or queen rules. You could say that the reign of King George VI lasted from December 1936 until February 1952. Used as a verb, to reign would mean to hold that royal office and to rule as a monarch.

Given this, it almost makes sense to say “free reign,” because it sounds like the person is gaining sovereign control and is not bound by any sort of real restrictions or rules. But that would be incorrect and nonstandard. Instead, free rein is the term that you want to use. Coming from the equestrian world, it would mean to hold the rein(s) in your hands loosely, thereby giving the horse greater freedom of movement.

In the context of my professional endeavors, I have some freelance clients who are very particular about what topics they’d like explored, whereas others, like what I call “the absentee,” offer me “free rein” over the subject matter. In this way, these kinds of clients let me write about whatever I’d like, so long as it is within their general industry, genre or niche.

Going back to the context of riding a horse, this makes sense. I am still tasked with surveying a certain area and getting from point A to point B, but I have “free rein” to move around within this sphere as I see fit. The reins are held loosely.

Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 topic? My reign over this blog is one that is open to communication, so you can always “rein” me in if I over-extend myself.