Free Rein or Free Reign: What’s the Difference?

English can be a confusing language to learn, especially when it comes to homonyms and homophones. If two words sound the same when spoken, their spellings can be difficult to distinguish in writing. This is what makes today’s phrase so confusing.

Free rein or free reign: which is it? They both sound the same!

The phrase free rein is commonly misspelled in English by both native and nonnative speakers and writers alike, so don’t worry if you aren’t sure about the correct spelling.

What is the Difference Between Free Rein and Free Reign?

The phrase free rein is an allusion to horses, not to kings or queens. This is an important distinction to make when you are looking for the correct spelling and it will guide us the rest of the way when comparing free rein vs. free reign.

When to Use Free Rein

what does free reign meanFree Rein Definition: The phrase free rein means to act on one’s own authority; to do as one pleases.

  • My new job gave me free rein to start any project I wanted.

As I mentioned above, the phrase free rein is an allusion to horses, not to kings, queens, or royalty. This is why rein is the correct word choice here, not reign.

When you are giving a horse free rein, you are holding its reins loosely, so as to allow the animal freedom of movement.

A rein, of course, is a long, narrow strap attached at one end to a horse’s bit. They are used to guide a horse while riding, so giving a horse free rein is allowing it to move more freely and choose its own path while you are riding it.

This phrase has taken on a more figurative meaning in modern society. Here are a few examples,

  • The university gave him free rein to research and publish as he wanted.
  • You have free rein to restructure your department as you see fit.
  • Johnson and the screenwriters, giving free rein to their own imagination, honor and reflect Presley’s own mighty creative freedom. –The New Yorker

Other Uses of Rein

The spelling free rein makes that much more sense when you look at other uses of the word rein.

rein vs reign versus reinFor example, if you were to hand over the reins of power to someone, you wouldn’t say the reigns of power. That simply doesn’t make sense.

  • Hand me the reins.

-not-

  • Hand me the reigns.

If an office manager is keeping his or her staff on a strict budget, you might say he or she is keeping everyone on a tight rein.

  • She keeps a tight rein on office supplies.

-not-

  • She keeps a tight reign on office supplies.

And if the president wants to rein in a rogue government agency, you wouldn’t say reign in.

  • Rein in government spending.

-not-

  • Reign in government spending.

Finally, a synonymous, albeit less common, expression to free rein is full rein. If you give people full rein, you are giving them the freedom to do as they please.

  • He gave me full rein of the refrigerator.

All of these examples help illustrate why rein is the correct word choice in the phrase free rein, which has to do with freedom of action, expression, or movement.

When to Use Free Reign

what does free rein meanFree Reign Definition: Free reign is a spelling error, mistakenly used for the phrase free rein.

While it’s tempting to think of the phrase free rein as meaning a monarch wielding power of his subjects, this is not the historical meaning or spelling of the phrase, and the examples of reigns of power, hold the reigns, take over the reins, rein in, tight reins, etc., make that abundantly clear.

Instead, the word reign has different uses.

Reign as a noun: As a noun, reign refers to the period of time a sovereign rules.

  • This chapel was built during the reign of Charles I.

Reign as a verb: As a verb, reign refers to the action of holding royal office, being the best of most important, or holding a title.

  • Queen Elizabeth reigns over the United Kingdom.
  • In America, the Super Bowl reigns king of TV.
  • Floyd Mayweather reigned champion once again.

Remember the Difference

I had a hard time coming up with a trick to remember which of these two spellings is correct: free rein vs. free reign. Here is what I managed to come up with.

If you can think of the “g” in reign as standing for gross, you can remember that reign in is a gross misspelling of the phrase rein in.

If you can think of a better mnemonic, I’d be happy to hear it. You can reach me on Twitter at @Writing_Class.

Summary: Free Reign vs. Free Rein?

Is it free reign or free rein? While it might be tempting to spell the phrase as free reign, this is a spelling error.

Free rein is the correct phrase.

  • Full rein is a synonymous phrase.

Free reign is a spelling error.