Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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

share|improve this question
2  
How about it being correct because many people use it, and that's how languages evolve. –  Jonathan. Aug 16 '11 at 22:50
    
If you live in Minnesota, "for real", "for ish", "two for one" and even "for expensive" are generally accepted and understood. –  user19467 Mar 28 '12 at 8:12
    
It's as incorrect as saying "kicked the bucket" to mean "died". –  David Schwartz Mar 28 '12 at 10:10
    
Also in MN: "Oh! For nice!" –  jwpat7 Mar 28 '12 at 14:57

7 Answers 7

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

All the sentences are correct.

share|improve this answer
5  
Your friend is a misguided pedant, or more in the vernacular "full of hooey." –  Tod Aug 16 '11 at 17:22
    
How about "gratis"? –  GEdgar Aug 16 '11 at 17:39
    
@Tod - Complimentary hooey, in this case. No charge. –  Dan Ray Aug 16 '11 at 18:26

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.

share|improve this answer
4  
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.) –  Hellion Aug 16 '11 at 17:45
3  
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. –  FumbleFingers Aug 16 '11 at 17:54
    
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. –  Sean Hanley Aug 16 '11 at 22:17
1  
@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". –  FumbleFingers Aug 17 '11 at 0:54

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.

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer
    
Can you give an example where "for," especially as used in the context of the OP's question, takes an adjectival object? –  zpletan Mar 28 '12 at 16:03
1  
They left him for dead; the warning was for real; we'll save it for later; call me Ishy for short; etc. –  Brett Reynolds Mar 28 '12 at 19:43
    
@BrettReynolds Well said, how do you feel about for cheap –  Mynamite Jan 26 '13 at 2:33

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.

share|improve this answer
2  
Good to see, though, that you take a relaxed view of apostrophes (line 2, paragraph 3). –  Barrie England Mar 28 '12 at 7:03
    
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 Mar 28 '12 at 15:55
    
Rereading comment—I don't mean object of a preposition, but object, synonymous with "thing". –  zpletan Mar 28 '12 at 16:25

"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.

share|improve this answer
1  
I got it for free of charge? –  zpletan Mar 28 '12 at 16:02
    
@zpletan: The expression is "I got it free of charge" (no for). –  Tom Au Mar 28 '12 at 19:19
1  
So is "I got it for free" correct, or not? –  zpletan Mar 28 '12 at 23:55

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.

share|improve this answer
1  
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. –  wfaulk Aug 16 '11 at 17:50
    
@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. –  Chad Aug 16 '11 at 17:53
3  
"At no cost" means the same as "free." I think you're thinking of "at no additional cost." –  nmichaels Aug 16 '11 at 18:24
    
@ wfaulk: TANSTAAFL. –  TimLymington Aug 16 '11 at 22:24
    
@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. –  Chad Aug 17 '11 at 12:52

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 28 '12 at 19:24

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.