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When is the suffix "-less" used, and when is the suffix "-free" used?

My initial assumption was that "-free" is used when the absence of something is good, such as "care-free", and "-less" is used when the absence of something is bad, such as "careless".

But while looking up -less in Wiktionary, I came across words like "blameless" and "cordless". If the above logic were used, it'd be "blame-free" (the word gets some google hits, but nowhere near as many) and "cord-free".

Is there any logic to when "-less" and "-free" is used?

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Here is an illustration of the difference: If you walk through a swarm of insects, you will remain bite-free only if they are themselves biteless. Even if they were to bite, you would remain pain-free only if the bites were painless. Notice how poor a fit, if any, is obtained by swapping those. –  tchrist Nov 24 '12 at 2:15
    
@tchrist: Yes, but why are fish fillets boneless, whereas dealcoholised wine is alcohol-free? In both cases you have to specifically remove something, to get the thing you want. Besides, you can be blameless or blame-free - makes no difference to me. –  FumbleFingers Nov 24 '12 at 4:21
    
Smokeless and smoke-free are used in different ways: smoke-free = with no smoke in the atmosphere: smoke-free hospitals smokeless = giving rise to little or no smoke; smoke-free: smokeless fuel; smokeless environment. As usual, it's not clear-cut. Probably, smokeless zone used the term partially in a transferred sense, a zone where only smokeless fuels may be used. My perception is that the - -free suffix is more productive than the -less one. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 24 '12 at 12:01
    
At the very least, see here, here, and here. –  tchrist Nov 24 '12 at 15:48
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I guess -less refers to the nature of something, which can't be changed while -free indicates that something can be present or absent at one's will. –  Terry Li Nov 24 '12 at 16:41

2 Answers 2

For me, the logic for when to use either suffix revolves around the denotation of the text you are writing. Use -less when a sentence refers to the absence of something formerly present, for example, a cordless phone. Use -free when a sentence refers to something that was never present, for example a carefree child.

I use the denotation because while -free tends to have positive connotations, -less can have either positive or negative connotations. But using the above rules based on context works in most situations.

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There is a distinction (by convention) between blame-less and blame-free.

An innocent child, assumed to be incapable of malice, would be blame-less in the event of some catastrophe befalling the family. By contrast, its father (who might have been thought responsible by some) could be adjudged blame-free when another explanation is found.

On the other hand, the mobile telephone that can be used in a hands-free manner would not sell very well if advertised as being hands-less.

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