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Lately I've noticed increasing usage of the phrase "free reign". Is this a legitimate usage of the word "reign", or is this a corruption of the phrase "free rein"?

I've been dismissing usages of "free reign" as grammatical errors, but I'm beginning to see this phrase used even in print, so I'm questioning my initial dismissal of this phrase.

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This kind of misspelling is called an eggcorn. Because this is the Internet, there is of course an Eggcorn Database. Read more about rein→reign here: eggcorns.lascribe.net/english/34/reign – Jason Orendorff Mar 15 '11 at 14:40
up vote 12 down vote accepted

The NOAD reports the following note, in the definition of reign:

The correct idiomatic phrase is free rein, not free reign.

In the definition of rein, the dictionary adds the following notes:

The idiomatic phrase a free rein, which derives from the literal meaning of using reins to control a horse, is sometimes misinterpreted and written as a free reign. More than a third of the citations for the phrase in the Oxford English Corpus use reign instead of rein.

Grammatically speaking, both the phrases would be correct, but the idiomatic phrase should be free rein.

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Thank you for supplying those definitions. Free rein always made more sense to me, as I was thinking of the phrase in terms of reins on a horse, as seen in the definition. – quanticle Mar 6 '11 at 2:55
No doubt the confusion stems from both the fact that "rein" and "reign" refer to systems of control (both could be possibly "free" in a notional way), and that few speakers today will be familiar with equestrian terminology. We have lots of similar terms like "saddle" and "bridle," "chomping at the bit," etc., that are used metaphorically. – The Raven Mar 6 '11 at 13:04
@The Raven: It's actually champing at the bit (which kind of makes your point even more true ;-) – psmears Mar 6 '11 at 21:51

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