Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Reign or rein?

with 8 comments

Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait, W...
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There’s nothing like setting children a good example, and this is nothing like setting children a good example:

How many times do you get to draw and customise whatever you like on a T shirt?! Hardly ever I bet, but this is your chance — we are giving you total free reign!

This generously punctuated piece of text appeared on a BBC website dedicated to the children’s programme Blue Peter.

Free reign should be free rein. It is a very common error to confuse these two words.

A queen reigns: a horse wears reins. The idiom free rein is derived from the latter meaning, as is rein in which you will also see wrongly written as reign in.

More commonly confused words and phrases


Spelling tips and tricks


8 Responses

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  1. Yet a logical, understandable mistake — just the wrong idiom.

    Michael Farrell

    10/05/2010 at 5:54 pm

    • Yes — you’re right. Being given ‘free reign’ almost works in a strange kind of way.


      10/05/2010 at 6:18 pm

  2. I’m not sure that an error can ever be logical – logic would surely lead to the correct usage.

    An error may well be understandable, perhaps, but no less wrong.



    10/05/2010 at 6:43 pm

  3. I think I understand the error. It’s free “reign” as an assumed variation of “free choice”. You are the monarch. Both are metaphors and illogical in any case, unless you happen to wear a horse bit for some sort of thrill inappropriate to discuss in this space.

    Invisible Mikey

    10/05/2010 at 7:10 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — yes, the more I think about it, the more I see why people write ‘reign’ instead of ‘rein’. Thanks for dropping in despite drowning in paperwork!


      10/05/2010 at 7:15 pm

  4. One writing instructor calls this “an example of the triumph of folk etymology over origin.” The instructor points out that the mistaken version is almost as common (my Google search showed the correct version used 742,000 times vs. 520,000 times for the erroneous one).


    I was hoping to find “free rain,” but it’s only used, it seems, as a pun or a band name.

    Michael Farrell

    10/05/2010 at 9:56 pm

    • Thank you, Michael, and for the link.


      11/05/2010 at 3:33 am

  5. Perhaps the royal wedding is to blame.

    National firm to take over reigns, proclaimed a very large headline in a local Wiltshire newspaper recently. And at about the same time, this from the Guardian:

    It will need … above all, a willingness and capacity to ‘reign in’ the acute hospital sector.

    And this from the BBC online news site:

    During that time they are accused of allowing the gang free reign in the Valle del Cauca region.

    In all those examples, the correct word is ‘rein’. See Oxford Dictionaries on this common confusion.

    Read Guy Keleny’s interesting short analysis in The Independent about the frequent confusion between ’rein’ and ‘reign’ .


    17/04/2011 at 10:37 am

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