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Commonly Confused:

Rain, Reign and Rein

It’s funny. The more I write about the English language and the more I try to help elementary students whose first language isn’t English, the more I realize how difficult English is. It’s hard enough for native speakers to keep all the rules straight, let alone someone who is trying to learn English. We have an exception to almost every rule. But the one element that can be tough all around, regardless of your mastery of English, is homophones.

One of the most commonly confused homophones I see in editing is between rain, reign and rein. The confusion between this trio of words is mostly related to reign and rein, but I didn’t want to leave rain out in the… well… rain.

Image courtesy of foto76 at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of foto76 at freedigitalphotos.net

Rain

Let’s talk about the one that gives us the least amount of confusion first: rain. This would be the water or precipitation that falls from clouds. If you are talking about rain you will most likely need an umbrella. We rarely get this one confused with the other two.

-to rain (cats and dogs)

To rain something, such as cats and dogs, death and destruction, misery, prosperity, etc., the meaning is figurative. Cats and dogs don’t actually fall from the sky (unless there’s a tornado), but in a figurative sense rain is used to show something appearing in abundance.

Image courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Reign

To reign means to rule, as in a queen and king over their loyal (or not so loyal) subjects. If you are lucky to be in the position to reign royally, you probably live in a fancy castle.

-reign of terror

When a someone rules in a way that is unfavorable to his or her subjects, it is oftentimes referred to as a reign of terror. This is not to be confused with raining terror (to bring down terror figuratively). A reign of terror is not limited to monarchs and dictators. It could be your boss whose reign of terror makes everyone miserable at your place of work.

Image courtesy of iwanbeijes at freeimages.com

Image courtesy of iwanbeijes at freeimages.com

Rein

If you are talking about rein, it is most often the straps that hang from a bridle that riders use to control a horse or team of horses.

-rein in

If you rein in something, it means to restrain something that has gotten out of control or is causing some type of trouble. Just as you would use reins to control your horse, figuratively you would use the word rein to show restraining something or someone who’s out of control.

-free rein

When you give free rein to something or someone, you give them carte blanche. In other words, you trust them to make the right decisions without having to watch them. This again gets it origins from the use of reins and horses. If you trust your horse to know the way home, you give it free rein.

For the most part, the use of rain, reign and rein is pretty straightforward. It’s when we encounter the figurative or metaphoric use of these words that we get into trouble.

Leave a comment below and let us know what tricks to you use to keep these words straight.

Now… go write something!


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