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Free rein vs. free reign

The usual spelling of the phrase meaning freedom to do as one pleases is free rein, not free reign. The latter is a common misspelling, and it almost makes sense given reign‘s meaning (i.e., the exercise of sovereign power). But free rein, an allusion to horseback riding, is the original form, and it is much more common in published texts. The OED lists instances of its use from as long ago as the 17th century.1 As the ngram below suggests, free reign is a much newer development.

This ngram graphs the use of both phrases in a large number of English-language texts published between 1800 and 2000:

Examples

Instances of free reign are easily found, especially where editors are absent—for example:


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And really, what player doesn’t want to go all Simon Cowell on a teammate every now and then if given free reign? [MLB.com]

You can either give kids free reign with designing their play mat or set them up with a challenge.  [Patch]

Incumbent political heads across the region are taking notice while the nervousness has given crude a free reign to head north. [MarketWatch]

But free rein, as used here, is the more common spelling:

One part of that pact has already been exposed as flawed, since it turns out that, given a free rein, banks sometimes blow themselves up. [The Economist]

It seems that advertising companies are given free rein to make the cleverest, funniest ads of the year specifically to air during this one football game. [Guardian]

Julia Gillard took the debate to a lower level before the election when she invited people to give their prejudices free rein. [Sydney Morning Herald]

The second part of this sergeant’s letter calls for yet another vow. It reminds us that war, by its nature, breeds corruption and gives free rein to abuses of all sorts. [The Nation]

Reference

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Comments

  1. Sara Norris says:

    I have recently seen a much more puzzling and counter-intuitive use of reign instead of rein: “reign in,” as in, “We need to reign in spending.”

  2. Biggus Dickus says:

    obviously “free rein” is the only and true one that makes sense, because it means you don’t hold your horse back and allow it to do what it wants. The misspelling only makes sense partially sometimes, because it most cases it only means to allow somebody to do something and not make him King or in any way superior to his colleagues. Like allow a soccer player to play intuitively but not make him “rule” over the rest of the team.

    • blumberdingle says:

      Disagree, “free reign” makes perfect sense. In fact, “free reign” has become so common in English that any rule suggesting that “free rein” is the only proper spelling should be viewed as archaic grammatical nonsense. Free reign reigns!

      • Disagree with your disagreement. Just saw that mistake in a political fund-raising letter and was shocked. It becomes clear if you go to the origin of each of the two words. There are probably about 60 million of those letters being delivered today, so I’m afraid we’ll be seeing a lot more of your “reign” problem when people don’t think it through.

        • Ryan McLaughlin says:

          Shocked? Cmon.

          • Sure, Ryan. Persons with the power to fine-tune critical and expensive mass-produced fund-raising materials have the freedom and responsibility to verify that each part of their pieces is correct before release to “all eyes.” (I’m of course not referring to the content of what they accuse the other side of doing, in which area they lie professionally at every turn.) The native language common to us all is an area that should be pristine even when none of the rest ever will be.

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