Word peeve of the day

>> Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I try to be really cool about word use and not too anal about it. Which is why, for instance, I usually don't leave comments correcting spelling or grammar unless the error is really funny or embarrassing. (And I'm sure someone can find an occasion where I was a hypocrite and violated this informal rule, but spare me, 'kay?)

But this one really, really irritates the piss out of me. I'm not going to single out the blog where it happened today, but I am going to point it out here because, you know, it irritates me, is why.


1. the period during which a sovereign occupies the throne.
2. royal rule or authority; sovereignty.
3. dominating power or influence: the reign of law.

–verb (used without object)
4. to possess or exercise sovereign power or authority.
5. to hold the position and name of sovereign without exercising the ruling power.
6. to have control, rule, or influence of any kind.
7. to predominate; be prevalent.


1. Often, reins. a leather strap, fastened to each end of the bit of a bridle, by which the rider or driver controls a horse or other animal by pulling so as to exert pressure on the bit.
2. any of certain other straps or thongs forming part of a harness, as a checkrein.
3. any means of curbing, controlling, or directing; check; restraint.
4. reins, the controlling or directing power: the reins of government.

–verb (used with object)
5. to check or guide (a horse or other animal) by exerting pressure on a bridle bit by means of the reins.
6. to curb; restrain; control.

–verb (used without object)
7. to obey the reins: a horse that reins well.
8. to rein a horse or other animal.

9. draw rein, to curtail one's speed or progress; halt: The rider saw the snake and drew rein sharply.
10. give rein to, to give complete freedom to; indulge freely: to give rein to one's imagination. Also, give free rein to, give full rein to.

What annoys me is that the common substitution error these homonyms provoke only goes one way, and it's always regarding the idiomatic usages you see in the last part of the latter definition. Nobody "reigns in spending," it makes no sense: you "rein in spending," as in, you metaphorically tighten the reins of the horse that is spending so that it slows down. On a similar but different note, you could, I suppose, "give your imagination free reign," except that phrase doesn't mean what the user thinks it does; if you give your imagination free reign you are letting it rule you (I guess--actually, I'm not sure this usage makes that much sense, either), while giving it free rein means you are letting it run where it will.

To bring the idiomatic back to the literal, original usage: you might tighten or loosen the reins of your horse, but you wouldn't give your horse reign unless maybe you're the Emperor Caligula, and the whole point of that apocryphal story was that Caligula was batshit insane.

There is, actually, a somewhat useful observation in this beyond me just bitching about something trivial: the reason the substitution only goes one way and the reason it bothers me so damn much is because it's lazy writing. I don't mean the fact that the phrase is a cliché, though that might be a reason to avoid it, but rather the fact that the person who is misusing it isn't really choosing his words carefully or thinking about how he's saying something. The entire piece may in fact be thoughtful and smart--the piece that annoyed me today was exactly that--but if the writer was actually thinking about the image he was calling on, it would be obvious to him that he meant reins are being pulled or relaxed and that reigns would never or almost never make sense in the context he's using it in.

Now, I'll admit (1) that I sometimes do this, my fingers merrily typing ahead of my brain (I may have done it in this post; I hope not) and (2) that blogging is generally more spontaneous and less-conducive to the kind of proof-reading and editing that ought to catch blatant laziness like reigns-for-reins. But neither excuses anything, and if you catch me doing something similar, it's not me at my best.

So try not to make this mistake, folks. At the risk of sounding like even more of a pedantic asshead than usual, remember: kings reign, riders rein. Thanks.


Eric Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 12:16:00 PM EDT  

Well played, sir. You win... this time....

Leanright,  Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 12:48:00 PM EDT  

I get frustrated by the misuse of Their, there, and they're. Along with your, you're, and yore.

Of course, it you are using the last one of those three, you're probably from a different era, and would NOT be on a blog.

Methinketh thoust understands.

Good day.

Steve Buchheit Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 1:27:00 PM EDT  

Homonyms are my downfall. I've been getting better, but they still slay me (as opposed to sleigh me). The problem is, my brain sees the word as correct and I slip right over it.

Nathan Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 1:37:00 PM EDT  

1. Kudos to Johann.
2. Most kings could do with some proper reining.
3. Personally, I want to slap anyone who says, "I could care less".

WV: Louspen = Aspen's lesser known sister city. But you really don't want to go there.

Leanright,  Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 4:59:00 PM EDT  

Eric, to be honest, I'd love to see a post sometime from you as to how you come up with your various titles TO your posts. Very clever.

timb111 Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 10:53:00 AM EDT  

George Bush reigns in spending! He created a deficit after Clinton left a surplus.

Leanright,  Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 12:57:00 PM EDT  

timb111....Yes, Bush left a deficit...what the hell do you call what we have now? Superdeficit?

timb111 Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 1:38:00 PM EDT  

Well, I really wasn't trying to make a political comment, I was just trying to use "reigns in spending" in a sentence since Eric said nobody does and I'm just contrary that way.

Eric Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 4:16:00 PM EDT  

But it's still an awkward phrase, sort of like "giving your imagination reign" is, in'it it? And in most cases it won't be what the speaker/writer meant to say--he or she's probably imagining Bush tightening the spending, as opposed to ruling it or ruling in it's presence.

As for what we have now: what we have now is that the way you lower a deficit is by raising more revenue than you're spending. Now, granted, one way you could do that is by making drastic cuts in spending, however:

1) The duly elected majority party has limited interest in cutting programs as extensively as required;

2) The vocal minority has no interest in cutting the programs that would have to be cut--we're talking primarily about defense spending, although the vocal minority also includes a lot of people who don't want their welfare programs (e.g. Medicare, ag subsidies) cut.

The most responsible way to bring spending and revenues into balance is to cut some spending while raising revenues--i.e. to raise taxes. The duly-elected majority party is attempting to increase revenues by allowing the previous administration's tax cuts to expire, returning taxes to Clinton-era levels (which remained much lower than Reagan-and-pre-Reagan levels). The vocal minority party has mischaracterized this return to prior levels of taxation as a massive whomping tax hike that will steal food from the mouths of orphans in soup kitchen lines; more importantly, they've engaged in all sorts of obstructionism and shenanigans.

Does one venture to hope the imminent departure of Rahm Emmanuel from the White House will make 51% the new 51%, at least until we discover how many seats the Republicans actually gain in both houses of Congress? It may well be too late for that. Is there complicity on both sides of the political aisle for pandering to high-dollar campaign contributors and corporate interests while allowing the tax regime to be distorted beyond all reasonable coherence? Absolutely, but the observation doesn't even seem helpful anymore.

In the meanwhile, for my part, I'll continue to vote for people who at least seem to be more likely to favor responsible, progressive tax policies and sneer at people who posture and pose and preen over how unfair it is that they have to pick up the costs of living in a pretty great country. Yeah, it's a goddamn shame those policemen and soldiers who protect your shit don't work for free and you have to share in the costs of educating the hoi polloi in the hope they'll be able to earn a living wage instead of rioting and burning down a subdivision of McMansions. Goddamn shame about that court system and public universities and an interstate highway system, sure wish we lived in a bunch of lean-tos with our guns and anarchy like rational, productive, self-reliant men and their women are supposed to.


WendyB_09 Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 5:47:00 PM EDT  

One of my favorite books is "Eat, Shoots, and Leaves (why commas really matter)" which deals wonderfully with this exact subject. It frequently lives on my desk as a reference.

aphole=what you call your new i-phone that isn't working right.

(add new, knew & gnu to the list)

Jim Wright Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 8:25:00 PM EDT  

This post wasn't by any chance inspired by my misuse on Stonekettle Station today of "Pidgin" for "Pigeon" was it?

dammed spell chequer

Eric Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 8:28:00 PM EDT  

It wasn't, Jim. I didn't notice that one, and if I had I might've sent you a DM. This was indeed someone using "reign" in place of "rein."

timb111 Friday, October 1, 2010 at 10:06:00 AM EDT  

I've been out of town and off the internet, but on the chance that someone is till reading these comments:

My wife is the Queen of shopping. She rules at the mall. She reigns in finding bargains, she reigns in fashion and she reigns in spending.

Now, if someone wants to comment that this is an obvious sexist stereotype, please understand that occasionally for a particular individual stereotypes are accurate.

Eric Friday, October 1, 2010 at 10:41:00 AM EDT  

And that usage works! I hereby award you a pie!*

*No pie will actually be awarded.

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