Read the Riot Act - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Is your father giving your grief about coming home late last night? If so, you could say they are about to “read the riot act” to you and warn you not to do it again. This post unpacks the meaning, origin, and use of this expression.

Read the Riot Act Meaning

If you “read the riot act” to someone, you’re giving them a verbal warning that they need to change their behavior, or there will be consequences for their actions. It’s a common expression used to demand that the other person change their behavior and fall in line with your expectations.

Depending on the situation, you could use the phrase at work or home. For instance, your boss could read you the riot act if they discover you doing something other than what you should be doing. Your mom could read you the riot act if she comes home after a hard day at work to find you haven’t finished your homework.

Read the Riot Act Example Usage

“if you don’t stop that behavior right now, Timmy, I’m going to read the riot act and send you to your room.”

“The boss wasn’t happy with the way the guys stocked the storeroom. He read the riot act and told them he’ll fire them if they don’t sort it out by tomorrow.”

“I walked up to that girl to say hi, but before I could say anything, she read me the riot act and told me to stay away.”

“The ref read the riot act to LeBron; he’s tired of him swinging his elbows.”

Read the Riot Act Origin

The origin of the phrase “read the riot act” comes from a law named “the riot act,” passed in Great Britain in 1714. The riot act involved legislation stating that groups of 12 or more people showing erratic or violent behavior would be deemed a “riot.”

If such a crowd gathered, local law enforcement was responsible for dispersing the group before turning the gathering into a full-scale riot, causing property damage and injuries to the public.

If the crowd refused to disperse at the command of the police, the authorities would read the group “the riot act,” giving them an hour to disperse. The police would arrest any remaining people from the crowd if they failed to adhere to the warning and leave the area.

If arrested, the culprits would face the death penalty.

The British government invoked the use of the riot act several times during the 18th and 19th centuries. There were several occasions where the authorities would not have to wait the required hour for the crowd to disperse if there was a threat of violence.

Phrases Similar to Read the Riot Act

  • Give them hell.
  • Tell them off.
  • Scream blue murder.

Phrases Opposite to Read the Riot Act

  • Calm and collected.
  • A friendly conversation.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Read the riot act.

Ways People May Say Read the Riot Act Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase in reference to a riot. However, the saying has nothing to do with a riot, and the word “riot” simply means bad behavior, disrespect, or irritation in this case. You’re not actually reading a “riot act,” you’re just telling someone off for their bad behavior or actions.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Read the Riot Act

You can use “read the riot act” in social and professional situations where you’re looking to reprimand a peer, children, or a co-worker. The phrase means that you’re giving them a “telling off,” and you expect them to change their behavior, or there will be consequences.

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