Tag Archives: word choice

rein vs. reign

Like a lot of commonly confused words, reign and rein actually have similar meanings as well as spellings. Reign refers to having authority or rule; rein alludes to the straps used to guide horses, therefore also implying control.

It’s easy, then, to mix up expressions that use these words. “Free reign” makes sense to me, but the correct use of the phrase according to Webster’s (and AP) is “free rein.” Likewise, if someone is exerting control, or holding back, they’re “reining it in,” and someone seizing control is “taking the reins.”

“Reign” tends to be used less often, but you need it when referencing the time someone was in power or highly influential (i.e. the reigning champion). It can also denote a prevailing emotion: “Fear reigned in the aftermath of 9/11.”


if I were or if I was

I love when pop songs get it right. Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” is a great tool to help you remember when to use “if I were” instead of “if I was.”

The grammar rule invoked here has to do with subjunctives, hypotheticals and a bunch of other big words. So when a mentor gave me this easy tip, it was a total Aha! moment for me. Use “if I were” to preface something that’s pretty much impossible. Another easy way to remember it is the expression “if I were you” — I can’t actually be you, so “were” is correct. Beyoncé is probably not going to become a boy anytime soon, so she’s right. In general, you won’t find yourself using “if I was” very often, unless you’re saying something like, “If I was rude, I’m sorry.” (Because it’s possible that I was rude.)

true colors

I’m slightly obsessed with the version of “True Colors” from the Glee Vol. 2 soundtrack, a cover of the lovely Cyndi Lauper tune. But while I think this song manages it skillfully, I would use the expression “true colors” with caution. It’s really evolved to have a negative connotation, meaning hidden faults or questionable motives, e.g. “His aide’s candid memoir reveals John Edwards’ true colors — the senator was willing to lie in order to preserve his presidential bid.” I’m not saying it can’t ever be used as a compliment, but if you must, make sure the context is very clear.

enormity, revisited

The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn is just as cranky as I am about the continued use of “enormity” as a synonym for “immensity.” (I expect better from my girl crush, Rachel Maddow!)

gwyneth’s bad grammar

I suppose I should be thrilled that Gwyneth Paltrow devoted the entirety of her latest GOOP newsletter to singing the praises of Nashville, where she’s been filming for the past few weeks. Except, like that of so many well-meaning folks who visit here and love it, her delight comes across as a little condescending. ‘Wow, there’s actual culture down here!’

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a, an and the letter h

Just got back from an absolutely lovely visit to Austin, Texas, where I spotted this sign on the fabulous South Congress Ave.

Generally, words that start with vowels take the article “an” instead of “a.” Words that start with “h” sometimes need “an” as well — but not as often as people think. The rule is that you only use “an” if the word starts with a vowel sound: “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” If the h-word starts with a hard consonant sound, you use “a”: “Kathryn Bigelow winning the Oscar for Best Director was a historic moment.” (Similarly, if a word starts with a letter that is a vowel, but the sound is a hard consonant, you should use the article “a”: “For the cast of The Hurt Locker, March 7 was a euphoric night.”)

It’s hard to tell from the design of this restaurant sign, but if the correct word order is, “Please see an inside hostess to be seated,” it’s fine. If it means to say, “Please see an hostess inside to be seated,” that’s wrong.

premier vs. premiere

I’m a celeb reality show junkie, so when Kendra, which follows Hef’s former girlfriend-turned-NFL wife and mom, comes back for a second season, I’ll be sure to watch. But I’ll be tuning into the “premiere,” not the “premier.” When you are describing the first appearance or instance of something, either in noun or adjective form, it’s the premiere — with an e. The word “premier” means the best, the cream of the crop. It’s a great adjective that I actually think is underused, probably because people don’t know how to use it. (If you’re using premier as a noun and not referring to a political leader, it’s probably wrong.)

True story: I helped out with a magazine launch a few years ago, and the bosses insisted on plastering “Premier Issue” on the cover, no matter how much the editors argued. I guess technically that wasn’t wrong — to date, it was the best-ever issue of that magazine. (It was also the last.)