Giving spelling errors free rein

It’s bad enough “alright” has made it into some dictionaries already. I’ve heard all the arguments about how languages evolve over time, blah blah blah, but this is not one of those changes. It’s a common misspelling that was recognized as such until the Internet era, when a bunch of people who were barely functional in the written language were forced to start using it on a daily basis, and some of the dictionary people just sort of shrugged and gave up. Look, if this was considered a misspelling in the mid-’90s, it hasn’t stopped being one now. Proof of my point: We still, rightly, consider “alot” to be a misspelling. So too “aswell”. Yes, I’ve seen someone argue that “aswell” should be considered a single word on the basis of evolving language, and yes, he was an idiot.

(I’ve also heard it argued that the correct spelling, “all right”, sounds stilted. It sounds stilted only if you read it stiltedly. Remember, the space itself is just a literary convention; when we pronounce words we blend them together. People who read “all right” and think it’s stilted do so because they’re pronouncing the space, overstressing the first word. I don’t see how this is any different from the first few times you encounter an unfamiliar word, or encounter a word after you first learn how to pronounce it. It’s the exact same squidginess I got from reading ennui once I learned what it was and how to pronounce it.)

If you want a genuine language evolution example, look no further than “blog”. We accepted that practically overnight because it was too darn useful. It’s not a misspelling, but a legitimate new word. Moving on.

Another one that drives me batty: No one can spell “led” anymore. That is, the past tense of “lead”. People seem to assume that because the present and past tense of “read” are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, the spelling of “lead” stays unchanged in past tense. It does not help that the metal is also spelled this way, with the same pronunciation as the past tense verb. Still, while this assumption is understandable, it’s still frelling wrong.

But none of that is my point today. My point is to bemoan this opening to a news story:

Two cats have free reign [sic] of a local courthouse and no one wants them gone.

The story is attributed to WXIN in Indiana, so one of their journalists needs to go back to remedial school.

The phrase “free rein” is frequently misspelled as “free reign”, even by so-called professionals. In one sense I see why people do it: They think of reign in terms of holding power, and the idea of free reign makes them think it means being able to do whatever you want. It does not mean that, because it doesn’t mean anything. If you reign, the idea that you can do pretty much whatever you want is already implied. Also, the mistake is always made in cases where the “reign” is limited, which means it’s not really a reign, now, is it? The word they want here is rein, and it comes from the very obvious context of driving horses. To give a horse free rein is to slacken the reins to the point where they’re operating without immediate guidance, but you do have the ability to take that slack back out if you need to. It is not “reign”, because they are not kings or rulers, they are simply being given freedom. Are the cats in this story kings, outside of their own minds? Do they in fact rule over the courthouse? No. Wrong word, stupid!

Making this story so much worse is the nonsense phrase “free reign of”. That should be “free rein in”, or nothing. Even if one were to accept that “reign” was the right word, the right word to follow that would be “over” or “in”.

This is not an indictment of the Indiana educational system or the universities in that area. Heck, there’s no way to know where this bonehead really came from or went to school. The problem is endemic. People just aren’t taught to spell anymore. And yes, when you accidentally use a different word in written English than the one you really mean, that’s a spelling error, not a grammar error. This cat story has both kinds: “of” is a grammar error, “reign” is spelling. But grammar can be a finicky beast, and is full of archaic rules (subjunctive case, “whom”), half-rules (never end on a preposition, which is mostly BS), and ambiguous cases. Spelling is one of those things people really ought to get right.


About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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