Thursday, January 27, 2011


Rain, reign, rein

I was going to give today a miss, but then I read, for the 17,248th time, I think, the phrase given free reign. And now I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.[1]

There’s rain, the water that falls from the sky. That can be free, but no one thinks that he was given free rain means anything interesting.

There’s reign, the rule of a king, or the metaphorical equivalent. One can be given the freedom to reign, I suppose, but think about it: what does it mean to be given free reign?

Then there’s rein, the strap by which we control a horse. When we pull the reins in, we control the horse more tightly. When we let up on the reins, we exert less control. And when we give [the horse] free rein, we let it do as it pleases.

The phrase is given free rein.

[1] No, it’s just a Network reference.


A'Llyn said...

Ha--I just wrote about this a week or so ago.

I keep seeing 'free reign' too, and it makes me bristle, although I decided to try to come to terms with it instead of just issuing a condemnation.

Not that I don't think condemnation is warranted. It's 'free rein,' everyone! Get with it!

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

It appears this may be one of those cases (hopefully one that won't impact us badly) where repeated uses turn a grammatical error into acceptable English. See, for example:

The Free Dictionary has separate entries for each, and references the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms:

Hopefully we won't have to accept such neologisms too often. Irregardless, sometimes we must.

Barry Leiba said...

Ah, well now we get into the debate about whether dictionaries should be prescriptive (tell you what words to use and how) or descriptive (tell you what words are used and how).

If one reads something and tries to look it up, and it’s not in “the dictionary”, that’s not very helpful. But does that mean that everything you find in the dictionary is OK?[1]

Some dictionaries label certain usages with “non-standard” or “usage problem” (see, for example, the definition for ain’t), which helps in that regard.
[1] “OK” itself, in fact (and “O.K.” and “okay”), made popular in Martin Van Buren’s 1840 presidential campaign, was considered marginally acceptable slang for quite some decades, but is now entirely accepted.

Ray said...

Others in a similar vain [sic] that get my goat:

"I've given this alot of thought."
"Giving credit where credit is do."

The Ridger, FCD said...

Of course, the number of people who have any idea what a rein is is probably far smaller than those who know "reign".

Of course, what makes me bristle are people saying this is a 'grammatical error'. It's nothing of the sort.

Brent said...

That makes Marty Feldman's comment all the more confusing:

Could be worse, could be raining!
Could be worse, could be reigning!
Could be worse, could be reining!

Barry Leiba said...

Ridger: Indeed; it's a usage error (an idiomatic error). I similarly bristle when people complain about "grammatical errors" when it's a question of orthography.

I once gave a talk in which I referred to a hypothetical unknown computer user as "she". Someone spoke to me afterward and said I confused things with my "grammatical error". Nonsense, I said, it's not an issue of grammar, but one of custom. I bucked custom, but I wasn't ungrammatical.

"Yes," said the audience member, "you were ungrammatical. Persons of unknown gender are grammatically masculine."

In other languages, maybe, I said. But as long as people refer to the unknown boss as "he" and the unknown secretary as "she", you'll not convince me that it's anything more than custom.

He had nothing further to say about it. (And you just knew the audience member had to be a "he", didn't you?)