When it’s almost the right word

Magic the horse and the buggy I drove in Intercourse, PA

Over the long weekend I got a little reading done, and I noticed a funny thing. In three consecutive books I read the phrase, “giving him/her/it free reign,” meaning the subject had freedom to do what it wanted. Only … that’s not the right word. REIN is the right word, not REIGN. Authors only have words to use as their tools. As part of our craft it’s vital that we use the right tools, the same way a mechanic wouldn’t use an Allen wrench when a socket wrench is called for.

So then I thought, okay, these are three published books, and if anyone knows how many rounds of editing these go through, it’s me. So how could it go through edit, copyedit, and proof, and no one catch the error? Could it be because no one knows it is an error? Am I just being anal? Or—gasp!—am I the one who’s wrong?

Turns out I’m not. I’m anal, but that’s to be expected in a copyeditor. According to Merriam-Webster, “free rein” means “unrestricted liberty of action or decision,” and it’s what you do with a horse when it knows its way home and you don’t need to direct it.

Take Magic, for instance, the horse who pulled the buggy I was driving in Lancaster County. Magic was very patient with this greenhorn. He could obviously tell that the experienced hands of Omar, his usual driver, were not on the reins. At one point I got so busy talking that it took me a minute to realize Magic was running the show himself, and the reins lay limp on his back while we trotted down the country road.

Free rein. We’ve gotten so far from horses as part of our transportation that we no longer know how to use even the phrase correctly. I bet the Amish do, though.

1 thought on “When it’s almost the right word”

  1. Vince BernhardtVince Bernhardt

    I find many young writers are too loose with language. It is our craft; mastery of the tools is a requirement for mastery of the craft.

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