free reign or free rein

Imagine that you’ve given up on planning your mother’s 60th birthday party and handed the task off to your younger sister. You don’t have time to find a caterer and buy decorations, but your sister does, and she’s thrilled to take the throne. So you give her free reign to plan the entire event.

Or do you give her free rein to plan to plan it? Which one’s right? We’re about to tell you.

What does free reign or free rein mean?

When people say that they are giving someone free reign or free rein, it means they’re giving them freedom to do something or to determine a course of action. When we say it like this, it seems like free reign should be the correct term, right? After all, reign describes the time a person is in power for. And we use it in sentences like this:

  • “His reign as king ended when he died.”
  • “She reigns over several countries.”
  • “Chaos reigned all around them.”

So if someone has free reign, it must mean they’ve got the power to do whatever they want.

This isn’t quite right, though.

It’s free rein, not free reign

Although it’s common to see people using the term free reign, the correct term is free rein. Where does it come from? Back in the day when horses were a big part of our lives.

Reins are the straps used to steer a horse. You can use the word in sentences like these:

  • “Her palms started to sweat as she gripped the reins in her hands.”
  • “She pulled sharply on the reins to steer her horse out of danger’s way.”
  • “He handed her the reins once she was ready to go.”

You probably already knew this. What you may not have known, though, is how this is related to the idea of having freedom.

The term free rein comes from the concept of holding the reins of a horse freely or loosely. How loose? Loose enough so that a horse can move relatively freely. So when someone gives you free rein, they’re holding a pair of figurative reins loosely enough to give you some freedom.

Free reign is a common misspelling

If you’re feeling bad because you didn’t know up until now that free reign is actually free rein, don’t. Many people misspell free rein as free reign. The good news is that you now know that free reign has more to do with horses than it does with thrones.

Summary

You may think that you’re giving someone free reign to plan a party or organize your next team building event. But you’re actually giving them free rein. You aren’t letting them rule the world freely. You’re loosening the reins you’ve got them on to give them more freedom to move.

Would you use appraised or apprised in this sentence: “The police were immediately _______ of the situation”? Find the answer in our post on the difference between these two words.




Free reign or free rein: Which one is it?

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