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English Idioms and Phrases: Read the Riot Act

Updated on January 22, 2016


'To read someone the riot act' is to tell them off (shout at) or to severely reprimand someone who is being unruly (Misbehaving). For example, a parent can 'read the riot act' to an unruly child and has the added meaning of a strong warning (usually relating to a punishment)

"If you do that again you will be grounded for a month!!!" (read the riot act)

"I just read him the riot act"


The Riot Act dates back to 1714 and was a law passed by British Parliament that permitted law officials (police) to force groups of 12 or more people to move on and disperse or to face punishment.

The last paragraph of the Act, which can be seen in the photo, was read out to the groups and if after one hour they had not moved on the law officials were allowed to use force to split the groups, and anyone who assisted in the dispersal of the groups could not be held accountable for any injury or death caused to the 'rioters'. If anyone was found guilty of wishing to serious damage property such as churches and houses they could be punished by death.

The police to this day are still required by law to deliver an oral warning before a crowd is dispersed however there is no longer a punishment of death but rather possible arresting and imprisonment. Thus, if someone is misbehaving, you 'read them the riot act' to scold them and tell them off severely often with warning of further punishment.

Alternatives or Synonyms

reprimand, scold, shout at

Similar Idioms

to dress down


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