Q&A: Free reign or free rein?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re feeling as right as reign…

Q: Hi AWC, my friend read something of mine yesterday and was trying to correct “free reign” to “free rein”. Please tell me they’re not right.

A: Sorry, but they are.

Q: No no no. Surely context will help. You see, my story said that “the Queen gave the court jester free reign to do whatever he deemed necessary to make her laugh”.

A: Again, sorry to “rein” on your parade, but it’s still “free rein” – defined by the Macquarie Dictionary as “complete and unfiltered licence or scope”.

Q: But she’s the Queen?! And she reigns!

A: It’s irrelevant – but you’ll be pleased to know that you’re not alone in your thinking. Many assume it’s “free reign” because the meaning of reign (typically to rule as a monarch or as Roger Federer) seems to fit with being able to do what you want.

Q: Well duh – that’s why I chose it!

A: But in actual fact, the term is “free rein” – in relation to horse riding. The rein is of course a strap attached to the bridle – designed to keep the horse in check.

Q: My cousin Sophia had a bridle party last week at her wedding.

A: Oh, haha, no – that’s spelt BRIDAL party, relating to the bride.

Q: Um no. It was a horse-themed wedding. When they asked if anyone had any objection to their union, we all had to call out “NEIGH” like a horse, and instead of throwing confetti, we threw horseshoes – for good luck.

A: Um.

Q: There were some injuries.

A: Right.

Q: So where were we? Ah yes. The word “rein”.

A: Well, it’s the verb “rein” we’re really wanting here – meaning “to curb, restrain or control”. When you “take the reins”, you assume control, or when you “rein in” your behaviour, you restrain yourself.

Q: I can’t believe you’ve saddled me with this new information. Excuse the pun.

A: Thank you pun, you can go.

Q: Okay, so “free rein” simply means being free of the restraints or controls?

A: That’s right.

Q: So what about free range eggs?

A: What about them?

Q: They sound kind of similar. And those chickens seem to be able to do what they want.

A: Have you even been listening today?

Q: I’ve gotta say, there are a LOT of people who think it’s “free reign”…

A: You’re right – especially in America, where studies show it now gets spelt with the G more times than without.

Q: My uncle Robergt has the opposite problem.

A: Just remember that “free rein” is correct – and when you think of that phrase, think about loosening the reins on a horse, to give it more control.

Q: No, I’m going to imagine riding on horseback to a free James Reyne concert in the rain, taking place on a free range farm and definitely not at the palace of the Queen – despite the court jester having free rein over the entertainment.

A: Yes, that probably works too.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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