Q: I’ve seen many top publications (I won’t name names) using the words “reigns” and “reins” as if they are the same word. I always thought they had different meanings. Can you please clarify this? —Sherry C.
A: These two words trip up a lot of writers who tend to use them interchangeably, even though “reign” and “rein” have completely different meanings. It’s important to get them straight—you don’t want The Grammatical Faux Pas Police knocking down your door (or worse yet, a writer calling you out in a Questions & Quandaries question).
A “reign” is the period of time dominated by one ruling power—like the queen’s reign in England or my reign as captain of the WD chess team. “Reign” can also serve as a verb meaning “to possess power or authority over someone or something.” While I captain the WD chess team, our managing editor, Zachary Petit, reigns over our pinochle club.
On the other hand, a “rein” is a leather strap used to control a horse (or reindeer, if it’s Santa’s season). “Rein” can also be used as a verb meaning “to guide a horse using a strap.” I told the horse to “giddyup” by tugging on the reins. I had to rein him in after he began hurdling fences and garden gnomes.
In order to keep them straight, here’s a simple mnemonic rhyme: Reins are for reindeer, for they are spelled the same way, but a mighty king’s reign of Gs rules the day.
And for the few folks out there who occasionally toss “rain” in with the other two because it sounds the same, remember that “rain” is what falls from the sky, waters your plants and cancels your outdoor pinochle match.
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