It’s winter at the moment where I live in the Mid-Atlantic. There is very little rain this time of year and just enough snow to freak out all the drivers and close schools and cause the government to shut down – which is not appreciably different from any other day, regardless of season. It usually only rains in the spring here. In fact, one May it rained every single weekend but never during the week. This meant nothing to me, but to coworkers with kids in sporting activities, it was a huge deal.
Right about now, you’re thinking, is she auditioning for a job at The Weather Channel? Nope. I’m not that interested in precipitation or low-pressure systems or any of that. But I am interested, as you may have learned after several weeks of blog posts, in the correct usage of words.
Here are three different words which, despite having the same pronunciation, mean three completely different things.
Rain: It falls from the sky and gets everything wet.
Reign: To rule over a group people, like a queen.
Rein: A restraining influence. Like handcuffs. Or leather straps. As on a horse. Or not.
I find that people are rarely confused about the first word. Rain. We know what it means; we can use it correctly. It makes sense. It only gets tricky when a project goes terribly wrong at work and problems seem to rain down on you. But the correct form of the word makes a logical connection here because things are falling, like the water from the sky. The action hews closely to the meaning, and therefore reduces the bewilderment about its use.
So our problem children here are really “reign” and “rein.” I have found the simplest way to distinguish between the two is to ask myself: Does this word have anything to do with Kate Middleton and her in-laws? No? Then go with “rein.” Of course it’s not that simple. But it’s close.
If you’re talking about royalty or rulers of countries or time periods in which authority over a group or a situation is taking place, as in: “Queen Elizabeth has reigned over Great Britain since 1952.”or “That jammy-fingered toddler conducted a reign of terror in my living room which only features white furniture,” then “reign” is the way you want to go.
If you’re so excited about taking that same jammy-fingered toddler to his grandmother’s house for the weekend, but you’re trying not to jump up and down with joy, you’re “reining in your enthusiasm.” You are using a method of restriction. You’re keeping your enthusiasm from running away from you. You’re trying to exert a measure of control over your emotions.
But if you’ve ever ridden a horse (which I have – twice – the most recent time involving what I thought was just a light trot through the waves at the beach but ended up being more like the shipwreck scene from “Black Beauty.” If you haven’t seen the film, you really should because you will collapse in on yourself laughing imagining me riding a horse in the middle of an ocean. Full of fish. And we all know how I feel about fish.) Right, back to the point. If you’ve ever ridden a horse, you know that reins work in more than one way. Yes, they’re used to control the horse, but that control doesn’t always mean to restrain; it can also mean to set free. If you let go of the reins and let the horse run free (hopefully without leaving you floundering in the water), you are giving the horse “free rein.” This is the same thing you do sometimes with your thoughts or your emotions. And if you’ve read enough of what I’ve written, you definitely get the feeling I let my thoughts and words have free rein, often leaving my point in the dust. Or in the water. Where it sleeps with the fishes.
Special thanks to Kristin for suggesting this topic and Heather for the genius title that makes me laugh every time I see it.
(Did I adequately explain the difference between rein/reign/rein for you? Do you have any lingering questions? Like, did it occur to me to wear a bathing suit under my dress when I went horseback riding? That would be a nope. Anything else, or general thoughts, leave me a comment!)
Originally published March 3, 2014