60-second fix: rein and reign

Seasons greetings, Rudolph here.

It has come to my attention that some of you humans are getting in a pickle about rein and reign, so I thought I’d spare 60 seconds to sort you out.

Firstly, let’s have a quick look at the dictionary definitions of rein.

rein (n) – a long strap used to control a horse

set of reins (n) – two of these straps joined together

to rein (v) – to restrain or hold back

If it helps you remember it, think of a reindeer wearing reins. That should do it.

Now let’s look at its homophone, reign.

reign (n) – the period during which a monarch rules a country, or a person or thing is dominant or powerful

reign (v) – to exercise the power and authority of a sovereign, to predominate, or to be the most recent winner of a competition

It’s when these words are used as part of idioms that people get confused. For example, I hear from my friends over at Oxford Dictionary that as many as a third of you mistakenly use reign instead of rein in the phrase to give free rein.

This is an understandable mistake, but it changes the meaning of the idiom somewhat. Someone with free reign would be free to rule over others, whereas someone with free rein is simply allowed considerable freedom (which is the original and ‘correct’ meaning).

Other idioms that use rein include:

to take the reins – to lead or assume control, eg ‘I’d like you to take the reins on this project.’

to rein in – to stop, check or impose control on, eg ‘John needs to rein in his team – they’re not complying with the guidelines we set out.’

to rein back on – to reduce the intensity of something, eg ‘We need to rein back on the amount we’re spending on advertising.’

For reign, there are two main idioms, but they’re rarer:

to reign over – to exercise exclusive power over something, eg ‘He reigns over the company like a tyrant.’

a reign of – a period of time with a particular character, eg ‘It happened during Colin’s reign of terror.’

Generally, if you find yourself wondering which one you need, it is more likely to be rein, dears, especially if you’re talking about restraint. If you’re being a bit snarky about power, however, reign may be the one you’re looking for.

Here’s wishing you a very merry Christmas. If you could rein in your urges to sing songs about unfortunate features of my face, I’d be ever so grateful.


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