Q&A: Free reign or free rein?

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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