By deanie


2011-08-16 17:12:01 8 Comments

A friend claims that the phrase for free is incorrect. Should we only say at no cost instead?

8 comments

@Sven Yargs 2016-04-04 21:45:01

Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, second edition (2003) has a typically (for him) sensible view of the subject:

free; for free. Because free by itself can function as an adverb in the sense "at no cost," some critics reject the phrase for free. A phrase such as for nothing, at no cost, or a similar substitute will often work better.

Yet while it's true that for free is a casualism and a severely overworked ad cliche, the expression is far too common to be called an error. Sometimes the syntax all but demands it—e.g.: "Soft-dollar arrangements ... include various services like research and information that big institutional clients receive for free from brokers." Anita Raghavan, "Pension Fund Plans to Scrap Certain Deals," Wall St[reet] J[ournal], 26 Jan. 1995, at A5. That same writer, however, omitted the for when it wasn't needed: "That research is sent free to the client." Ibid.

"For free" as a way of saying "at no cost" has been circulating in speech and in the popular press for more than half a century. I first took conscious note of it in 1970, when Joni Mitchell included a song titled "For Free" on her album of that year, Ladies of the Canyon. One instance from the song:

I was standing on a noisy corner/Waiting for the walking green/Across the street he stood/And he played real good/On his clarinet for free

It seems not at all inconsistent to include "for free" in a song that elsewhere uses such homely phrasing as "playing real good." Mitchell was born in Alberta and grew up in Saskatchewan, but she had been living in the U.S. for three years (and California for two) by 1970, so I have no idea where she picked up the expression "for free."

To gauge the use of "for free" in copyedited publications, I ran Google Books search results for word strings in which "for free" would be likely to appear only as an end phrase in a sentence or independent clause. Here is the resulting Ngram chart, for the years 1900–2005, for the strings "for free the" (blue line) "for free a" (red line), "for free can" (green line), "for free could" (yellow line), "for free would" (real line), and "for free do" (purple line):

False positives in the line graphs give the erroneous impression that attested instances in the Google Books database go to the first decade of the twentieth century (if not farther). In fact, the earliest confirmed instance of "for free" in the sense of "at no cost" that I could find was this one from Starr De Belle, "Ballyhoo Bros.' Circulating Expo," in The Billboard magazine (1947):

Thinking that he was an old wanderer from his gray beard, they dined him and as Lem didn't tip his duke they gave him a buck and two years subscription for the Hog Cholera Monthly for free. Before our hero could locate a hotel he was surrounded by a group of natives, who greeted him royally, offering him free room and board (pitch-'til-you-win style). Suddenly a group of local business men kidnaped him from the crowd and rushed him to the best hotel in town where he was given for free a suite of rooms. After being wined and dined Lem was rushed to the burg's best club where he learned what it was all about.

Presumably, since Starr De Belle presents this item as being an epistolary effort by one "Major Privilege" of Goat's Whiskers, Kentucky, the use of "for free" reflects the author's notions of colorful but substandard hick U.S. English from what would later become known as "flyover country."

In any event, the next two Google Books matches for "for free" in the relevant sense are from 1960. From a company's anti-unionizing message cited in Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board, volume 126 (1960):

It has been tough enough trying to provide steady work without having to deal with a bunch of outside organizers like operate most unions.

YOU can vote NO and save your money because you know that you can tell management about the things you want and they will do their best to give these things free. ... If times get a little better in the future additional benefits will be added—again for free. ...

Note that, as in Garner's example from the Wall Street Journal, the author of this message chose not to use "for free" at another point in the same piece.

And from Kansas Government Journal (1960):

In these days of high overhead of running a private business a "free" engineering service probably would be worth just about that much to the city. The old saying, "Nothing comes for free" could never be so readily applied.

In recent decades, however, use of "for free" to mean "at no cost" has skyrocketed. Search results for the period 2001–2008 alone yield hundreds of matches in all sorts of edited publications, including books from university presses. There is no denying that, seventy years ago, "for free" was not in widespread use in edited publications—and that it conveyed an informal and perhaps even unsavory tone. Such pasts are not irrelevant when you are trying to pitch your language at a certain level—and in some parts of the English-speaking world, "for free" may still strike many listeners or readers as outlandish. But in the United States the days when using "for free" marked you as a probable resident of Goat's Whiskers, Kentucky, are long gone.

@Brett Reynolds 2011-12-15 02:44:33

I believe the puzzle comes from the common but mistaken belief that prepositions must have noun-phrase object complements. Since for is a preposition and free is an adjective, the reasoning goes, there must be something wrong. The fact is that even the most conservative of dictionaries, grammars, and usage books allow for constructions like although citizens disapprove of the Brigade's tactics, they yet view them as necessary or it came out from under the bed. That is, they tacitly accept prepositions with non-object complements while claiming that all prepositions must be transitive.

A more coherent view is that prepositions, like nouns, adjectives, and verbs take a variety of complements. In the case of for, one of them is free.

@zpletan 2012-03-28 16:03:48

Can you give an example where "for," especially as used in the context of the OP's question, takes an adjectival object?

@Brett Reynolds 2012-03-28 19:43:57

They left him for dead; the warning was for real; we'll save it for later; call me Ishy for short; etc.

@Mynamite 2013-01-26 02:33:16

@BrettReynolds Well said, how do you feel about for cheap

@Chad 2011-08-16 17:40:47

The phrase is generally inaccurate. If you have to buy one to get the next one for free, it wasn't actually free. Same with items you receive for filling out a survey.

"At no cost" is usually more accurate in that it indicates you will not have to pay money for the item.

However the use of free is widely accepted to mean at no monetary cost. Its use is acceptable in advertising or speech and its use is understood to mean no monetary cost. I would only change the use in a situation where clarity and accuracy were truly important, like in a contract.

@wfaulk 2011-08-16 17:50:22

Nowhere does the OP say that it's a buy-one-get-one offer. Things can be free without you having to buy something else.

@Chad 2011-08-16 17:53:56

@wfaulk - I was using that as an example of where it is commonly used inaccurately. The OP also did not say anyting about filling out surveys in exchange for free items. for free is Generally inaccurate. I am not passing judgement about whether its use is wrong or inccorect.

@nmichaels 2011-08-16 18:24:14

"At no cost" means the same as "free." I think you're thinking of "at no additional cost."

@TimLymington 2011-08-16 22:24:10

@ wfaulk: TANSTAAFL.

@Chad 2011-08-17 12:52:56

@nmichaels - I have updated the post. I had not intended to indicate that the use of free was not acceptable. I only meant to explain what his friend most likely meant.

@Rich 2012-03-28 06:18:47

The first response to this question (above, at the top) made me chuckle. It states, "How about it being correct because many people use it, and that's how languages evolve. – Jonathan. Aug 16

Well, Jonathan, how about it NOT being correct simply because many people use it? Yes, languages evolve, but they shouldn't de-volve.

Another comment, above, mentioned that this phrase is acceptable in advertising circles. True, it is, and all the more shame heaped upon it's usage. Advertisers now use this syntactical abomination freely, as they carelessly appeal to our lower natures, and matching intellects.

Sean, above, wrote, "free is just a placeholder for $0." I disagree, and this is the point.

The term 'for' must be used with a commodity.

The use of a commodity, such as 'five dollars', can be correctly phrased, "for five dollars". It's an amount. But the term 'free' denotes the ABSENCE of a commodity.

'Free' denotes amountlessness.

The only phrase that comes close, and is in fact correct, is: for nothing.

Would you ever use the phrase, "for expensive"? No. You wouldn't.

All uses of the word 'for' in front of the word 'free' are just plain wrong.

Additionally, it sounds ridiculous and makes you seem uneducated, unless you're talking to another uneducated person, in which case, they talk that way too, so they won't notice or couldn't care that your English is compromised.

I could go on, so I won't.

@Barrie England 2012-03-28 07:03:00

Good to see, though, that you take a relaxed view of apostrophes (line 2, paragraph 3).

@zpletan 2012-03-28 15:55:39

I would say that "for" must be used more broadly with an equivalent object or set of objects rather than a commodity; see Merriam-Webster definition 8 or NOAD definition 8). This is what disqualifies free—as an adjective, it cannot (normally?) be an object. Nothing also denotes absence of a commodity, but as a noun it can be used as an equivalent object.

@zpletan 2012-03-28 16:25:09

Rereading comment—I don't mean object of a preposition, but object, synonymous with "thing".

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-16 17:30:22

Reasonable paraphrasings of the word free in this context are for nothing/for no payment. Clearly the word "for" can't be omitted from those paraphrasings. Thus many people will say that for free equates to for for free, so they feel it's ungrammatical.

  • How much does this cost?
  • It's free.
  • It's [available] for nothing.
  • It's [available] at no cost.
  • It's for free. (this usage sounds 'wrong' to many)

Many people use the expression (at least informally), so it seems futile to take issue with it - though more "careful" advertising copywriters do still tend to avoid it.

I don't know if it was David Crosby or Joni Mitchell who wrote the lyrics to He Played Real Good for Free that she sings so well, but I can't imagine dropping the word "for" there.

@Hellion 2011-08-16 17:45:53

I have to disagree with the reasoning behind this; "for free" = "for nothing"; therefore "free" = "nothing". (I don't disagree that many people probably do think this way, they're just all sick and wrong.)

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-16 17:54:22

I've expressed no opinion for or against the thinking. I'm simply saying I believe this is why some people think it's ungrammatical.

@Sean Hanley 2011-08-16 22:17:37

I like to view it as "for <amount>" where amount could be a discrete value like $5 and free is just a placeholder for $0 that doesn't sound awkward.

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-17 00:54:47

@Yadyn: Hmm. So syntactically, you parse "free" as simply a value, semantically equivalent to "nothing"? Ask someone to define "free", and they might well say "[available] for nothing", or "costing nothing". But they won't say just say it means "nothing".

@sumelic 2016-10-30 16:26:02

To me, it seems like there is a difference between using "for free" adverbially (which I would do) and adjectivally (which I wouldn't do). "I got this thermos for free" sounds perfectly normal to me. "That thermos was for free" sounds bad: I would just say "That thermos was free."

@Tom Au 2011-08-17 13:06:01

"Free" in an economic context, is short for "free of charge." As such, it is correct.

Of course it means different things (like "liberated") in other contexts.

@zpletan 2012-03-28 16:02:04

I got it for free of charge?

@Tom Au 2012-03-28 19:19:12

@zpletan: The expression is "I got it free of charge" (no for).

@zpletan 2012-03-28 23:55:50

So is "I got it for free" correct, or not?

@RiMMER 2011-08-16 17:17:58

This service is free.
The food is provided free of charge.
I got this item for free.

All the sentences are correct.

@Tod 2011-08-16 17:22:13

Your friend is a misguided pedant, or more in the vernacular "full of hooey."

@GEdgar 2011-08-16 17:39:03

How about "gratis"?

@Dan Ray 2011-08-16 18:26:14

@Tod - Complimentary hooey, in this case. No charge.

@kiamlaluno 2011-08-16 17:22:31

For free is an informal phrase used to mean "without cost or payment."

These professionals were giving their time for free.

The phrase is correct; you should not use it where you are supposed to only use a formal sentence, but that doesn't make a phrase not correct.

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