Thursday, May 31

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, May 31, 2012 12 comments
Today we're tackling a set of fraternal triplets of language, the homophones rain, rein and reign, as requested by Tricia O'Brien at Talespinning. Once again, I'll provide a definition, examples and mnemonic tricks to help you keep them straight.

rain (n) - watery precipitation; water that has fallen from clouds, rainwater.

rain (v, intrans) rained, raining - to fall as water from clouds; to fall like rain; to send down rain

rain (v., trans) rained, raining - to pour or administer abundantly

Hugh never understood that Adele song. How can rain be set on fire? Is it acid rain?
It rained all day, so the hike was postponed.
Jag rained blows on his opponent.
Denise loves the disco song "It's Raining Men."

Mnemonics for rain with an A:
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. (Thank you, Henry Higgins.)
Air pollution is a cause of acid rain.

rein (n) - strap on a horse's bridle attached to the bit that allows a rider to control and steer the animal; restraining influence.

(with free or full) opportunity for unhampered activity or use. 

rein (v, trans.) reined, reining - to control or steer, as with a bit and rein; sometimes used with in.

Pull the left rein to turn your pony left.
Jed kept a tight rein on the meeting.
Stacy was given free rein over the party planning. She could do whatever she liked.
Chloe, you need to rein in your campers. They're making a huge mess in arts and crafts.

The expression "free rein" specifically means "without guidance" and "full rein" means "without control." They are metaphors based on the practices of letting a horse instinctively find a trail or run at top speed; the rider leaves the reins loose and long (versus tight and short) in either instance, not steering or slowing the horse's free movement.

Mnemonics for rein with an E:
To ride east, Eve and Ella rein left.
Free rein: freedom and speed, whee!

reign (v, intrans.) reigned, reigning -  to exercise dominion or rule, like a monarch; exert dominion, sway or influence; to be predominant or prevalent.

reign (n.) royal authority, ruling power, dominion; the period of rule or dominion.

Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in honor of reigning for 60 years.
King Xerxes reigned from 519 to 465 BC.
Jessamyn reigns over the entire school like an evil queen.
Chaos reigns when those kids are left with a sitter.
Rebels continued their reign of terror for five months.
Reign of Fire was a film about dragons ruling the earth.

Mnemonic for reign with a G:
Gorgeous George reigns the giggling girls.

Increasingly, I've seen people use the expression "free reign," which I'm not entirely certain is a homophone error so much as a new expression with a slightly different meaning than "free rein." It is usually used in contexts of someone exerting total control or behaving like a dictator and taking no direction from anyone.

image credits: rain - ; rein -; reign -

Do these distinctions help? What other homonyms trip you up?


  1. Always good to clarify things like this. Homonyms are tricky. Several friends of mine say "ball" instead of "bawl", and it always confuses me at first.

    1. That's not one I've ever heard before. I suspect like peak and pique, the error happens when people aren't aware of the existence of the less common word.

  2. free rein and free reign always trip me up. I have to sit and think about them before I write them.

    1. I've seen the phrase "free reign" as an obvious homonym error, but increasingly it seems to have developed its own meaning and contexts. I guess the main distinction is whether it creates a feeling of Whee! (free rein) or Mwa-ha-ha! (free reign).

  3. I confuse shutter and shudder. And I have to think--one covers windows and the other shakes.

    1. I love dreaming up mnemonics. How's this:

      The shutter went tap, tap, tap in the torrent.

      The doom, doom of the drum made them shudder with dread.

  4. I've always understood 'free reign' and 'free rein' to be the same saying in different versions depending on where you are, with justifications then made up afterwards. In general, I'm told that the former is the more common americanised version, in the same way that several other common colloquialisms differ just enough to start arguments whenever I get a US based editor. On the cards/in the cards and hold the fort/hold down the fort are two others that spring to mind. Comedian David Mitchell rants at some length about the latter in a popular podcast. There's also that wonderful cringe response I get from non-UK readers when I say that someone had time to do something rather than that they had the time.

  5. I know what you mean about US/UK differences from my day job editing a journal that gets submissions from around the world. There are many idiomatic uses that differ. Take different--in the US it's "different from" or "different than": Brits say "different to."

    However, reign and rein are two different terms entirely, and I expect Americans use reign because of the cultural tendency to be literal and misunderstand metaphor (I say this as an American--it's something that discourages me). We also aren't a horse culture except in a few small pockets, so the loose rein metaphor isn't readily conjured for the average reader.

  6. I have to be honest I still get rein and reign mixed up sometimes. I have to think twice about it. :)

    1. I hope the mnemonics help you remember which version has the G in it.

  7. You are very cool for helping folks like this! And I love your post title. :D When I think of homonyms, I think of Dr. Evil. Caliber. <3 *nom nom nom*

  8. Thanks, Leigh. I have many more posts planned, so stay tuned!