Today, we’re looking at one of the most commonly misspelled phrases in the English language: “free rein” and “free reign.” Both spellings are common, but the original (and technically correct) version is “free rein.” So why is this one correct? And what exactly does “free rein” mean? Let’s find out.
The Origins of Free Rein
The phrase “free rein” dates back to the seventeenth century. We use it to mean “give someone the freedom to do or say whatever they want”:
The designers were given free rein to try new ideas.
On a literal level, “reins” are the straps used to guide a horse. So to give someone “free rein” is to give them freedom in the same way that holding the reins loosely gives a horse freedom to move. This is also why we use the phrase “rein in” to mean “bring something under control.”
The Confusion: Rein vs. Reign
Unfortunately, “rein” sounds exactly like “reign,” so they are easy to confuse. This second term can be either a noun or a verb, but in both cases refers to the rule of a king or queen. For instance, we could say:
The reign of Queen Elizabeth II has been largely peaceful.
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King Henry VII reigned over England from 1485 to 1509.
As a result, many people think the phrase about freedom is spelled “free reign.” This almost makes sense, as you could take the phrase to mean “the freedom to behave like a monarch.”
Nevertheless, this spelling began as an error and many still consider it to be incorrect. As such, it is always better to write “free rein.”
Free Rein or Free Reign?
In formal writing, idioms can help you express yourself clearly and demonstrate your command of language. As such, although “free reign” is unlikely to cause confusion, “free rein” is still the correct spelling.
To remember, keep the equestrian connection in mind. You will avoid errors as long as you recall that the “reins” in “free rein” are used to steer a horse. And if you need any help with your spelling, don’t forget to ask a proofreader.