Free Rein vs. Free Reign: An Exercise in Submission Through Grammar

Let’s start from the “right” and “wrong” of this. According to the good people at Merriam Webster, the correct form of this commonly misused phrase is free rein. It came from horseback riding, holding the reins loosely to allow the animal greater freedom. Now, I super trust Merriam Webster. They’re great at the whole language thing. But even they admit that free reign has been in use since the 1890s. That’s over a hundred years that we have been swapping out free rein for free reign, and since I support evolutionary language as opposed to static rules, I wonder if it’s time to get rid of right and wrong and accept both free rein and free reign.

No, this isn’t just because free reign is one of my most frequent writing errors. It’s because I really believe these two phrases have two different meanings that are both useful and necessary. The differences come from an examination of power dynamics.

Free Rein: A position of dominance giving power

When looking at the classic use of free rein, we have a human rider giving their horse freedom of choice and speed. This is a clear power dynamic. The human is obviously in charge of the situation, and they are choosing to give a little of their power to the horse. Above all, it is a false sense of power, since the reins are still in the hands of the rider, and at any point they can tighten the reins, pulling the animal back into a relationship of restriction.

Free Reign: A position of submission giving power

One idea is that free reign came about simply because people were more familiar with the concept of a monarchy and rulership than they were with horses. However, the early usage of free reign, when horses were still the most common mode of transportation, makes me wonder if that is true. I wonder if, instead, people heard free rein as free reign, and had a different interpretation of the phrase.

To me, free reign is more submissive than free rein. The power exchange is clearly between people, usually equals as opposed to a hierarchical relationship (such as in school or the work place). Free reign purposely places one person above another. It is the act of submitting and giving another the right to rule. Although free reign can also hold a false sense of power, the surrender tends to be more complete because either person in the relationship could, technically, rule.

Personal Usage

I tend to use free reign in very personal settings. Let me share an example with you.

I gave him free reign over my body.

To me, this represents a moment of complete surrender, when someone allows another to “rule” their body.

Free rein could be used in this situation as well. In fact, in many traditional relationships, free rein might be the better option. When I look at most traditional sexual relationships, I often see a woman who is restricting the desires of a man. (and/or herself). Not necessarily because she wants to, but because this is the role society has prescribed her: a woman should play hard-to-get, say no when she wants to say yes, be the one to halt sexual activity, and the one to insist on condoms or provide birth control. In this case, it makes sense to say she is loosening the reins. She has been in a position of control and is giving away that control momentarily.

But when you look at it from a more submissive point of view, free reign makes more sense. When I give a lover free reign over my body, I open myself and put myself beneath them, usually in a more complete way or longer term than is acceptable in traditional relationships. Instead of a brief loosening of my power, it is an acceptance of power over me. For those who have not explored the concept of D/s in relationships, this may not make sense, so I can’t really fault them for correcting my usage to free rein.

Despite my best efforts, she had full reign over my heart.

This is, again, an example in relationships. However, I don’t think that free rein would make sense here. Free rein is definitely given, by choice. It can’t be taken or had without consent. Here, it is clear that the narrator does not want to give over full rule of her heart, but she has no choice. In this case, it’s an act of forced submission, which can’t be achieved from someone who is already in a position of submission. I think this is a delicate balance, because I don’t want to imply in this situation that the free reign is nonconsensual (although I do think there can be nonconsensual free reign, it is not a usage I would employ in my writing, nor do I want to explore it in my personal life.). Instead, this is a sort of defeatist free reign, recognizing the greater forces at work, be they social, spiritual, or interpersonal.

For some people, the throws of passion can create an unwanted, yet still consensual, submission.

Is free reign just a mistake of free rein? Or is it a metamorphosis of the phrase that shows a more complex exploration of human relationships? I know where I stand on the debate, but I am wondering what you think. Are you accepting of language “mistakes” when made with intention, potentially expanding our nuance? Or do you want our old cliches to stay well-defined and understood?


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