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Error sometimes reigns

We made a mistake in a headline on Page 1A in The Sun on Nov. 16, "Senate moves to tighten reigns on wartime policy." The copy editor who wrote the headline — one who knows better — wrote reigns instead of reins. Sometimes, particularly when the work is done hurriedly, the wrong synapse fires.

But the error is one of a class, confusing two homonyms, that is particularly difficult for writers and editors. The wrong word spelled correctly will not be caught by a spell-checking function, and electronic grammar-checking functions are notoriously unreliable.

Reign and rein belong to the subclass of homonyms called homophones; they sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

The other class, homographs, includes words that are spelled alike but have different meanings, and sometimes pronunciations. Lead, the metal, and lead, the verb, belong in this class. But lead, the metal, and led, the past tense of the verb lead, are homophones.

For a useful electronic list of homonyms, have a look at Alan Cooper’s Homonyms.

The other problem with reign and rein is that the usage that gets confused most commonly is a buried metaphor. We no longer ride horses much, but we still take the reins when we assume control or give free rein when we surrender control to someone else. The English language is full of stock expressions that started out as metaphors and have since worn smooth with use.

Those buried metaphors frequently trip up writers who convert an expression they have imperfectly heard into written language. When I taught freshman English at Syracuse 30 years ago, my jaded sophisticates would observe that it is a doggie-dog world out there. Not an attractive picture, but certainly less disturbing than the dog-eat-dog world envisioned by Hobbes and others.

There’s a lot that can get by if you don’t keep a tight hand on the reins.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:38 PM | | Comments (2)


I urge my journalism students to emulate birdwatchers and create "life lists." Instead of Carolina wrens and Baltimore orioles, however, a journalist's life list should contain words or phrases that have tripped them up in the past. Certainly, I've seen more reign/reins and lead/leds than I care to count.

There is risk, too, that some of these words and phrases entered the language when what they stood for was in use but that use is long past. For a journalism publication, I once collected such references from fellow journalism educators. We listed such terms as "like a broken record" and "fingernails running down a chalk board." The point was that when our students were born, records were already an ancient technology, and that more chalk boards can be found in the memories of those of us of a certain age than in the classrooms our students visit from time to time.

I thought it was poetic license, as The Who did in "Love, Reign O'er Me" . Only love can cause the rain.....Love reign o'er me...Gave your guy credit for a sense of irony

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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