The first line of this news story says:

Call it space grave robbery for a cause: imagine scavenging defunct communication satellites for their valuable parts and recycling them to build brand new ones for cheap.

I've heard people use that "for cheap" construction before, but thought it was dialectal (mid-to-northern English). I was surprised to see it in an NZ publication.

Why does that almost pass grammatical muster, whereas "for expensive" (for example) really stinks?

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    I agree that it is not British Standard English. It would instead be on the cheap. Jan 23, 2013 at 20:46
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    It's a common enough expression here in NZ. Jan 23, 2013 at 20:53
  • @James Jiao: Is it? I haven't heard it here before. Do you think it is a British import? I wonder if that construction is used in any Asian or PI languages.
    – Kyudos
    Jan 23, 2013 at 20:57
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    @James Jiao: on the cheap is definitely a British English thing, common enough that almost anything in Britain can be done on the cheap.
    – Kyudos
    Jan 23, 2013 at 23:35
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    @FumbleFingers: Talk is cheap! And, if something costs a pretty penny, don't pay an arm and a leg to get it!... drive a hard bargain! And so on... There are a great many idioms (and especially about money, prices and bargain). Jan 25, 2013 at 2:23

3 Answers 3


From Google Books...

build them cheaply:600 hits
build them cheap:294 hits
build them for cheap:0 hits

buy them cheaply:4750 hits
buy them cheap:9980 hits
buy them for cheap:49 hits

As @bib says, for cheap may well be patterned after for free, where there's also disagreement over "acceptable" usage. For me personally, for cheap doesn't "pass grammatical muster", but I have no problem with people using adjectival cheap instead of adverbial cheaply.

  • I agree on the mustering, unless the usage was intentionally jocular. I did say almost pass!
    – Kyudos
    Jan 23, 2013 at 23:33
  • @Kyudos: I thought it was quite a nice turn of phrase, and I figured echoing it back was a good way of light-heartedly acknowledging that. But I certainly agree with you that build/buy for cheap is a lot more acceptable than for expensive, even if it doesn't exactly come up to the gold standard (i.e. - my idea of "grammaticality"! :) Jan 23, 2013 at 23:41
  • I would use 'for cheap' (UK) though I agree it doesn't make grammatical sense. It's just one of those things.
    – Mynamite
    Jan 25, 2013 at 0:45
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    @FumbleFingers An interesting and useful discussion, to which I don't have much constructive to add, but having talked about resultative constructions this weekend, I couldn't help but notice your adjectival/adverbial split. No, both cheap and cheaply are adverbial in this case. However, in They sell them cheap, cheap is adjectival, just as in They sold them damaged.But I bought them damaged involves a cognitive process quite different from the one involved in I bought them cheap.I didn't buy them SUCH that they were cheap;I bought them IN A WAY that they were cheap for me. Cheap-ly.
    – Talia Ford
    Sep 30, 2013 at 1:04
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    @Talia: Yeah - I know it's being used adverbially. But if you ask someone which is adjective and which is adverb out of cheap and cheaply you know what the answer will be. And obviously it's perfectly possible to use the "correct/regular" version and buy it cheaply. Your comment is useful, but I'm still happy with what I originally wrote. Sep 30, 2013 at 2:52

Perhaps it's a spin off of for free, such as

If you can't get it for free, at least get it for cheap.

It could be understood to mean

get it for [a] cheap [price]

In either case, it is colloquial at best. I have heard it as a slang expression in the US.

As to why it is less jarring than for expensive, I don't know. As an antonym, for dear might be arguably more acceptable (if only because it maintains the abbreviated, single syllable style), although I can't say I have heard it in the US.

  • I've heard it in from the Irish and the British also. It could perhaps be a hyper-correction of the adverb sense of cheap as in "I bought it cheap".
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 24, 2013 at 2:33
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    +1 for get it for [a] cheap [price]: suddenly everything makes sense now.
    – user19341
    Jan 24, 2013 at 9:00

'for free' is incorrect; something is either 'free' or 'for nothing.' It just sounds normal because many people say it now.

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    How can it not be correct if many people say it? Jan 26, 2013 at 12:04
  • People say "ain't", but that doesn't make it correct grammar. People say "aren't I" but that doesn't make it correct grammar. Dec 16, 2019 at 5:51

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