Friday, January 14, 2011

Just Do Whatever

I was thinking about the phrase "give free rein" lately. I see a lot of people write it as "give free reign."

And I can kind of see how they might both work.

Because a rein is of course the long strap of a bridle, which one uses to guide a horse. You tug on a rein to indicate that the horse should go left or right, or you give the horse free rein and don't provide any guidance, just let it go where it wants.

And reign is of course what a monarch does ("Elizabeth reigns here") or else the rule of a specific monarch ("this all occurred during Elizabeth's reign"). And I really don't think this is what the phrase started out to be, but you could see how giving "free reign" might mean giving someone the rule of something, so it sort of makes sense in the context in which people use it.

I learned it as "free rein" and that's how I personally would write it if I were going to use it, but there's a logic to the other way too.

If we wanted to get sophisticated about it, we could use both of them, but convey slightly different things with each.

I think of 'free rein' (with its sense of no guidance) as being given the ability to go wherever/do whatever you want, while 'free reign' (with its sense of ruling over something) suggests that you're given the ability to make other people do what you want.

If I have free rein of the castle, it means I can go anywhere I want inside the castle walls. If I have free reign of the castle, it means I can boss everyone inside the castle walls around.

At least, that's how I'm going to read it.


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