“Rein” is a noun meaning, generically, “restraint,” coming from the reins that restrain a horse, and part of the transitive verb phrase “rein in,” meaning “hold back” or “bring under control,” as in “Barack Obama is trying to rein in 527 groups and other sources of independent expenditure.”
“Reign,” on the other hand, is an intransitive verb meaning “rule as, or like, a monarch,” made transitive in the verb phrase “reign over,” and also a noun meaning “period of rule,” as in “during the reign of Queen Victoria.”
The phrase “reign in” with a direct object, although it passes a spell-check, is therefore incorrect. So far, I’ve seen “reign in” with respect to Obama and the 527s at least a dozen times, and have yet to see the correct spelling.
This is an example of what Orwell calls a “dead metaphor,” where the phrase has lost its original metaphorical meaning and become a pure idiom. (“Toe the line,” which originally meant to stand properly in rank during military drill, is another such, as evidenced by the frequent misspelling “tow the line.”) So how about using “restrain” or “control” or even “check” instead? Most of us don’t ride horses.
This has been another official notice from the Language Police.
Update A reader adds her own favorite howler: “conscious” for “conscience,” as in the phrase “in good conscious.” I hadn’t seen that one.
Quincy Adams has more:
Yes, and how many times have you heard people say “hone in on” when they mean “home in on” (from servo control, as in missile guidance, or probably originally from animals, e.g. homing pigeons) (or alternatively they want to say just “honing”, as in honing an argument — from sharpening a blade)?
Robert of Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts points out that Orwell listed “toe the line” as a dying metaphor like “iron resolution” rather than rather than dead one like “stand shoulder to shoulder”; I’d assert that the patient expired some time ago.
One reader points me to the Common Errors in English site, which he describes as amazingly “helpful and charming.”
Second update And they keep coming in:
In the category of expressions that are often gotten wrong, my favorite
is “would as lief”–“lief” being a cognate of German “lieb”.
Admittedly, it isn’t a particularly up-to-date experession–but
rendering it “would as leave” changes it from merely incomprehensible to
(It is rendered “would as leave” in one of Sherman’s reports, so the
mis-spelling predates spell-check.)
Another reader says his favorite is “for all intensive purposes.”