Is it "Free Rein" or "Free Reign" or even "Free Rain?"
It's not Free Rain
Well, I can tell you right off, it's not "free rain" so if you came looking for that, you're probably after the music group Free Rain. Here's a link to their website, go hire them for your party. Rock on!
Now, if for some reason you came here actually wondering whether the rain is free or not, well, um, then I can tell you: No, it's not. In fact, your account is past due for the rain you already received. Please include your credit card number in a comment at the end of this article and I will make sure your payment is processed and your account brought current right away. I promise. Act now and you will still be eligible for further rain this year.
For the rest of you, I'll answer the question fast so if you're looking this up for a writing project, you can get what you need and get back to work. Question:
Is it free "rein" or "reign?"
It's "free REIN." No "g."
There you go; good luck on your project. For the rest of you, here comes an explanation why, some insights as to how and why this term got so confused and maybe just enough background to help you keep it straight from here on out.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term means: Freedom of action or expression. Chiefly in to give (a) free rein (to). ("Free reign.n.")
I'm willing to bet you already knew that part. The thing you need to remember, though, is what kind of rein (reign, rain) we're talking about. That's where this term starts to get muddled up in our memories.
- reign 1. To hold or exercise the sovereign power or authority in a state; to rule or govern as king or queen; sometimes in restricted sense, to hold the royal office without being actual ruler, to have a limited or nominal sovereignty. (reign def 1 XIII:532)
That's from the good old Oxford English Dictionary again. Notice the use of the word "sovereign" twice in there, notice what's hanging on to the tail end of that "sove." Reign is about running countries and stuff, even "sometimes in restricted sense" which is true, and which is likely a big part of why this phrase gets mixed up so frequently.
The most common misuse of this concept of "freedom of action" is writing the phrase as "free reign," as in a metaphor alluding to allowing the King or Queen or someone else to have an open use of power or rule. The word "reign" is an obviously workable term for this idea as it quite clearly fits for the overall purpose. Not only does it work, it doesn't really change the meaning of the actual phrase much at all, particularly in that these two terms are homonyms or homophones (much the same as bad "rap" and "wrap" in another hub covering a similar set of sound alikes) and as such they really mess you up when you hear someone say this phrase out loud. That stupid "g" doesn't make any noise, so confusion is inevitable.
Between the fact that the King and Queen thing kind of works for the point anyway and that darn silent "g" making a homophonic troublemaker out of "reign" it's not hard to see why people write this wrong.
However, "free reign" is not correct usage and if you write it in the wrong place and time, you might get your hand smacked by Sister Mary Merciless or, at the very least, get your document cast off by some editor who thinks because he or she has nothing better to do all day than learn this kind of trivial English stuff, he or she has the right to blow you and your submission off.
As unfair as that might be, it can happen, so there's no reason not to write this term correctly from here on out so long as you can keep it straight in your memory.
A real point of confusion about this term is that you can find it all over the Internet now, and there are even some places advocating that it's "acceptable."
The fact of the matter is, it probably will become "acceptable" eventually because language evolves over time, which includes incorporating misuse and slang. BUT, it is NOT correct usage at this point in time, particularly if whatever you are writing is going to somewhere or to someone to whom you don't wish to appear ill-informed. The draft in progress at OED online has acknowledged the existence of this spelling inasmuch as that it immediately forces you to "free rein" and it writes "free reign" in big angry red letters.
The Correct Term is “Rein”
The "rein" that is embedded in the purpose of this phrase has to do with riding a horse. A rein, again according to the OED is defined as follows:
- rein , n1: 1.a. A long narrow strap or thong of leather, attached to the bridle or bit on each side of the head, by which a horse or other animal is controlled and guided by the rider or driver; any similar device used for the same purpose. ("rein" def 1.a. XIII: 535)
Having grown up on a ranch, this is something I can relate to. The phrase really means letting the reins loose so your horse can, as we say on the farm, "Have his head." It just means letting it go, letting it run freely without someone holding it back, guiding it or pulling on its mouth trying to control it. The origin of "free rein" is an equestrian one.
The transition from being an idea pertaining to horses to an idea regarding people was gradual, but it's pretty old.
The whole rein concept, without the word "free" attached, is associated with "allowing full course or scope" as early as 1568, when it was used to derogatorily describe the actions of the lower class, essentially animals in the view of some, thusly, "A larger reyne of mischeife geuen to the vulgar people." [My translation: A larger rein of mischief given to the vulgar people.] This from the OED, citing Grafton, Chron. II. 927 ("rein" def 2.b. XIII: 535).
Usage continued from there forward and the term "free" appears near the word "rein" (if not in conjunction with it yet) in 1621 when Bishop Joseph Hall wrote in Heaven Upon Earth, "Give a free horse the full reins, and he will soon tire." ("rein" def 1.b. XIII: 535). Now while I can't totally say that this particular quote directly led to the phrase we use today, I have to tell you it's an amazing coincidence, particularly since the OED uses the term "free motion" in close proximity with the definition of rein being given in the sub-definition under which that passage appears. The OED does not make the connection formally, but proximity has to at least make the suggestion plausible.
The first real use of "free reign" together appears to be found in 1640, in the History of Edward IV by W. Habington, the line being, "He..gave free reines to his injurious ambition." Our phrase popped up again a few years later in 1644, in F. Quarles', Virgin Window, with the line, "At such a time when he was pleas'd to lend free reines to mirth" (Free Rein, n.).
The rest is pretty much history. Well, that was history too, but you know what I mean. The transition of the term rein from a riding term to a human action term became eventually associated with the word "free" and the progression through time since then has not changed it much at all (except that people keep sticking "reign" in there now by mistake)
So now you know. The term you want is "free rein" not "free reign" or "free rain" and it originally had its origins in letting your horse run free, as in not reining it in or holding it back.
I hope this helps you remember how to keep this useful phrase useful in your written work because, frankly, I know how it goes when we aren't sure how to use something or spell something right. We either do it wrong or we leave it out altogether, which I think is worse. Language is fun, but sometimes it takes a little extra work to give us the certainty we need to say what we really mean and to use the familiar phrases we really want to use to make our message clear. We should never let our ignorance have free rein over our creativity, so to speak, especially now when we can just look stuff up on the Internet (and hope that whatever we have found is actually correct).
Free Reign video :)
A few more grammar and spelling hubs
Free Rain video... well, sort of.
"Reign." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.
"Rein." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.
"Free Rein, n." The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Draft entry, Sep. 2008. California State University of Sacramento. Sacramento, CA. 21 Oct. 2008. <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/cgi/entry/50295516?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=free+rein&first=1&max_to_show=10>.
Looking for something to read?
- daultonbooks.com (my website and blog)
Check out my latest novel project, novella, short story or have a peek at my blog. Keep up with the world of writing as I share tips, tricks and experiences around publishing in a modern publishing universe. My new novel, The Galactic Mage is out...