Commonly confused words: reins and reigns (and rains)

(Yes – the blog is back after an extended time out while I’ve been finding my feet as a director of the Institute of Professional Editors and president of the Victorian branch.)

It may be because fewer people are involved with horses these days, but there is an increasing confusion between the words reins and reigns.

Let’s start with the easy one:  reins. These are the long leather straps that a rider holds to control and direct a horse.

Reins: the long leather straps held by a rider

Centuries of horseriding have meant that many terms related to riding, using the word reins or rein have entered the language as metaphor. We can pick up the reinsgrip the reinshold the reins, drop the reins, pass over the reins. These all refer to taking, having or passing over control of something (often an organisation – when not a horse). When there is a lot of close control, we are keeping someone on a short rein, tight rein or firm rein.  If control is fairly relaxed, then we have a loose rein or even give someone free rein.

Holding the reins

On a very loose rein

These riding reins are quite different from the word reign, an abstract noun (and also an associated verb) that refers to the act of ruling, particularly by a monarch or sovereign. For example:

  • Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest reigning monarch.
  • Her reign has now lasted 66 years, and will reach 67 years in February next year.

The confusion between reigns and reins comes about because both words have an overlapping sense of meaning, in the sense of being in control, although reign is very much associated with royal control. Perhaps the best way to remember is that reign is the word that goes with being the sovereign.

Long to reign over us  . . .

The reigning sovereign shown literally holding the reins.

The one encouraging thing is that there is a third word with the same pronunciation (rains) and no one ever seems to confuse this with the other two.

Rain: not generally confused with rein or reign.

Unfortunately, the people who prepared advertising material for the Greens for this weekend’s Victorian state election fall into the camp of those who have trouble dividing their reins from their reigns.

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Photos: horse head by Violeta Pencheva, rider (detail) by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa, horse and rider by Lee Pigott, all on Unsplash; Queen Elizabeth II from Library and Archives Canada/K-0000047; Queen Elizabeth II riding with Ronald Reagan in 1982, courtesy Ronald Reagan Library; rain by Guillaume Bourdages on Unsplash. Greens electoral material dropped in my letterbox.

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