The phrase is not “free reign”

Here’s another post at, this one by Judith Tarr: Those Handy Equestrian Metaphors

Peeve here reminds me to note that in our essentially horseless society, a particular set of metaphors has slipped loose from its original meaning and caught hold of another that still makes sense. Sort of.

To wit: free rein and its converse, to rein in.

Now even otherwise well-educated writers and editors believe it’s free reign and, by apparent extension, reign in.

Quite right. This is one I’ve noticed more than once, and I do wish people knew where the terms came from and what they’re supposed to mean. Then this mistake would be impossible.

Others that seem especially common and that I have seen recently:

site / cite

phase / faze

peek / peak

Speaking as someone who routinely types random homophones ALL THE TIME, especially when tired, it’s nice to catch this sort of thing and fix it before you hit “post,” especially if you’re trying to make a serious point about something. It’s just hard to take someone seriously when they type “phased” when they meant “fazed,” even if their point is otherwise persuasive.

Anyway, that’s not really Judith Tarr’s point. She’s pointing out that you shouldn’t use metaphors that don’t fit the world you’ve developed, so if you have no horses, there are a bunch of metaphors that don’t work for that world. Good point, and I’m sure that happens, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this problem very often. Or at least, I haven’t noticed it. Can anyone think off hand of a time when you DID notice a misused, inappropriate metaphor that didn’t fit the world the author had created?

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20 thoughts on “The phrase is not “free reign””

  1. peek/peak/pique. tow/toe line. home/hone in

    And yes, I know I’ve read jarring metaphors, but can’t come up with examples right now, except a classic which doesn’t jar, although it should: Tolkien’s fireworks dragon as express train back in chapter 1 of LoTR. Whether it would jar if I came across it now but it’s grandfathered in because I’m used to it, or because the narrative prose and voice is such that I trust the author anyway I can’t tell – I’ve know and loved the book far too long.

    I do know that my sense of the author’s command of prose (or something – remembering some particularly painfully misused words in a book that I finished anyway) affects how I react to things that otherwise I complain about or just stop there.

  2. Not long ago, somebody else pointed out that other worlds really shouldn’t have words from proper names on Earth — and it’s more than you think, not just ‘sandwich’ or ‘quisling’ but all the mythologically-derived terms like ‘herculean’ or even ‘iridescent’ (from Iris, the Greek rainbow goddess).

    Tchah, I said to myself: in a secondary-world fantasy or an interstellar future, it’s all a translation from Westron or Anglic or whatever into modern English anyway, so it might as well be an idiomatic translation. Just use the correct idioms, and it’s fine.

    (Technically, I suppose an alternate history should be held to a different standard.)

    Elaine, it startles me that Tolkien used that comparison, actually, since he was more careful about language than practically anyone. (Also, I’m mildly startled I don’t remember it.) But I suppose in Chapter 1 he’s still easing the reader into Middle-Earth.

  3. Oh, I had an identical response as Craig — TOLKIEN DID WHAT? HOW DO I NOT REMEMBER THAT?

    Elaine, I’m positive I’ve seen that peek/peak/pique one recently. In fact, I’ll go far enough to say: I think some people do not know that “pique” is a word and therefore default to one of the others at random. Or something like that.

    Thanks, Pete! I do that one by brute force, but it would be nice to have a rule that makes sense to confirm I’ve got the right one.

  4. Wow, Elaine is right, but the anachronism isn’t jarring, because Tolkien uses a storytelling voice (as in Princess Bride.) The effect is as if his audience is sitting around the coal stove in 1930s England. He does not tell it as if to be contemporary with the actual story.

  5. I can’t think of any specific metaphors at the moment, but there’s definitely pop culture references that throw me sometimes, because I start wondering if this world is similar enough to ours that it would still have Star Wars, etc.

  6. Pete, yes, that’s what I was trying to describe about how I can let things go, if I trust the author. The storytelling voice of Ch 1 LotR makes it work.

    I’ve been dipping into the History of the Hobbit by Rateliff in between fiction, and was reading a section last night that mentioned such anachronisms, or it wouldn’t have been at my fingertips this morning.

    Example, unsourced but I’ve seen it around archers ‘firing’ arrows in a setting lacking gunpowder weapons. Apparently, the historical command/term was ‘loose’.

  7. I’m completely with Craig on this one. I just read it as interpretation put into modern idiom, which is fine. Also, it’s all but impossible to filter out these things because so many expressions have moved so far beyond their origins that few people are even aware of their origins.

  8. flare / flair
    Sadly, these mistakes are common and even find their way in the work of authors I would expect to know better (or have better copy editors). On jarring metaphors, I remember a Red Sonja comic (I was young then, don’t judge) where Red Sonja describes the arrangement of certain items as “like an artist’s still life”. Still life artists in the time of Conan the Barbarian! I laughed my head off and never touched Red Sonja or Conan ever again.

  9. When I first started a sample for Sarah Maas’ Court of Thorns and Roses, I saw this second sentence:

    “I’d been monitoring the parameters of the thicket for an hour …”

    And I thought, parameters? What? Does she mean perimeter? But if so, why is this word plural? It just seemed like an inexplicable word choice, and to have in the second sentence of the book, how could the author not have read over that enough times to see it’s the wrong word? How could a copy editor not query that? If a copy editor did query it, why didn’t Maas fix it? Did she really think “parameters” was the right word? If so, what did that say about her general ability to pick the right words for her sentences? I read that one paragraph several times and then deleted the sample.

    That was several years ago, but I’ve never forgotten that particular example.

  10. Example of discreet math (in a calculus exam):
    Bob and Alice were sitting in the back corner of the classrooms, making sure their COVID masks were in place to hide their mouths.

    “Psst, what’s the trick to problem 17?”, he whispered.
    “L’Hopital’s rule to simplify,” she replied.
    “Got it. Thanks.”

  11. Kathryn McConaughy

    I’m always taken aback by fantasy stories that use modern sports expressions… I’m left wondering whether they have invented golf or baseball in this medieval-style fantasy world. Killing three enemies is a hat trick? You are feeling under par today due to a curse? You are charging through enemies like a power forward? It really bothers me.

  12. Well, I don’t know anything about sports, so the only one of those metaphors I even recognize as related to sports is “under par.”

    I will admit, I’m pretty sure I have had people “fire” an arrow. I felt like there should be a better word and now of course I remember: “loose” and arrow. Hopefully I’ll remember that better after this!

  13. They tend to be metaphors heavily shifting toward idioms.

    “Strong suit” has leapt out at me. Because you don’t have a “strong suit” in a world without cheap paper — which allows you to have playing cards, which allows something to invent bridge.

  14. In golf, I suspect you’d be well *over* par under a curse… That said, the OED says it is an old word meaning “at parity”, as used in the stock market. In that case, feel less than par makes more sense with a curse.

  15. Kathryn, whereas if I run across ‘hat trick’ in a non-modern setting I’d be wondering where in this non-tech/industrial fantasy world they have stage magicians with hats to do tricks with. I don’t know the sports metaphor. But it would still be jarring, unless it fit the rest of the worldbuilding.

    People losing weight in those settings is also a subtle wrongness. Tracking daily weight is modern. A more natural expression to the non-tech/industrial would be an appearance of being worn thin.

  16. Ha, ha, Elaine and everybody else who is wondering, a hat trick in sports is achieving something three times in a row, usually within the same passage of play. I first heard it in cricket where the bowler takes three consecutive wickets in the same innings. Similarly, a tenpin bowler who plays three strikes in the same game or a football player who scores three consecutive goals in the same game. A jockey who wins three consecutive races is also described as achieving a hat trick.

  17. I usually give these sayings a lot of leeway since fantasy novels always have the pretense of being told in a language that’s different from the one being spoken in the world where the story takes place. The same way the made-up language gets translated into English, I assume that the “fantasy translation process” uses sayings the reader understands to convey a similar saying that makes sense in the setting.

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