Thursday, 22 December 2016

Rein vs. Reign and Strait vs. Straight

Have you ever written about being in “dire straights” or giving someone “free reign”? Read on to find out just how wrong you were.

Mary Cassat: The Tea
Try to rein in your anarchist tendencies during the tea party.

Rein and Reign


We’re all familiar with a horse’s reins, which keep it from bolting off into the blue. The word rein is used in expressions having to do with control or restraint, such as “rein in” or “keep a tight rein on.” Conversely, giving a horse “free rein” means it can go where it likes—just as a decorator given free (or full) rein may fill your bathroom with gold-plated fixtures and wall-to-wall mirrors.

To reign is to rule; the word comes from the same Latin root that gave us regent and regency. Use reign when you’re talking about domination: reign of terror, reign supreme.

  • Try to rein in your anarchist tendencies during the tea party.
  • Chaos reigned at the Laus’ house on the night Jenny’s pet rat, Cocoa, escaped.

Strait and Straight


A strait is a narrow passage between two bodies of water, like the Strait of Magellan or the Georgia Strait. Metaphorically, it refers to anything tight or restricting: straitjacket, straitlaced. “Dire straits” could be literally a difficult route to sail between rocky cliffs, or a figurative tight spot. The idea of restriction is also present in “straitened circumstances,” a euphemism for poverty.

Straight means “without deviation”: a straight line, straight up, straight to the point. Straight also implies honesty—no detours from the truth.

  • After the bust, Knuckles swore he was going straight.
  • Straitlaced men are like catnip to the succubus.

Having said that, some dictionaries list straightjacket and straightlaced as variant spellings, as they’ve become so common. But that’s no reason not to learn the difference, and using the more irreproachable spelling will earn you points from straitlaced grammarphiles.

P. Burne-Jones: The Vampire
Straitlaced men are like catnip to the succubus.

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