Friday, December 6

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, December 06, 2013 4 comments
Today we're tackling a set of fraternal triplets of language, the homophones rain, rein, and reign. 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."


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • King George reigns from a glittering, gem-covered throne.
  • Gorgeous Gordon reigns the giggling girls at Glenside High.

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.

This is an updated post from May 2012.

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


  1. Hm. I might have been using "free reign" instead of "free rein". I don't think I even really thought about it. Good point - and thank you!

    1. We're far enough removed from daily use of horses that most people have never learned what the "rein" metaphors mean. There are a handful of other archaic terms like "on tenterhooks" that also get misused, because the technology is so far from our lived experience.

  2. Thank you, Laura. I was never positive I was using the last two right.

    1. The idea of control can be related to both terms, which makes it a bit tricky. Generally, "rein" is used for steering or slowing like with a horse; "reign" is for instances of dominating or fully ruling.