In common vernacular, an electrician or plumber might say something like "I'll do the plumbing for free". I know it's not exactly proper English but what exactly is going on (In a technical sense) with the construction of this sentence?

I apologize for the lack of details. I composed this question on my iPhone last night during a debate over cocktails:

That being said, I realize what I am actually curious about is the limitation of idiomatic expressions. While the composition of this sentence is correct, someone pointed out that there are far better verb choices available to the speaker. E.g. I will plumb for free. While it might be a technically sound expression in this case, is there ever a push back in the grammarian world against less technically sound idiomatic expressions?

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    Since "do" is a verb it's not clear what you find odd about this sentence. Aug 13, 2014 at 4:45
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    What POS according to your sources is do? How do you "know it's not exactly proper English?"
    – Kris
    Aug 13, 2014 at 6:03
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    The sentence is impeccable, unexceptionable English, so you will have to specify what exactly you think is wrong with it, why exactly you think so, which alternatives exactly you are considering, and why exactly they are more grammatical or of a higher register.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 13, 2014 at 9:39
  • There's no support like do support. If your language doesn't have it, you're missing out.
    – Robusto
    Aug 13, 2014 at 14:06
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    Regarding your update: I will plumb for free sounds ridiculous. Nobody ever says that and most people would not understand what it means. You do the plumbing, and that's that. No question what it means, no ambiguity; it's technically sound and a perfect way to express the idea.
    – user85526
    Aug 18, 2014 at 3:45

2 Answers 2


This isn't just in vernacular; it's in the dictionary. Do has over twenty definitions in Merriam-Webster, so even if this isn't the one you usually use, it's still valid. My best guess as to why we don't see it in formal contexts more is that it's easy to replace with stronger, more specific verbs.

Do (m-w.com)

12 : to treat or deal with in any way typically with the sense of preparation or with that of care or attention:
a (1) : to put in order : clean <was doing the kitchen> (2) : wash <did the dishes after supper>
b : to prepare for use or consumption; especially : cook <like my steak done rare>
c : set, arrange <had her hair done>
d : to apply cosmetics to <wanted to do her face before the party>
e : decorate, furnish <did the living room in Early American> <do over the kitchen>


Hopefully, I can bridge the gap between the intent of the person who originally asked the question and interpretation of the question derived by the folks who left exasperated comments.

To set the record straight, the following sentence is grammatically correct,

I'll do the plumbing for free

but is improperly constructed, which leaves the interpretation of the sentence ambiguous. If you were to use this sentence in an English paper, your teacher would not mark you for improper grammar but would have an "amb" (for ambiguous) notated at the top of the sentence.

To all the negative vote givers and exasperated comment-writers who believe that there's nothing wrong with "do", you're right too!

So, what's wrong with the sentence? It's the fact that "the plumbing" is ambiguous in a written context.

In vernacular english, we automatically correct the sentence to read as follows as in our mind,

"I'll do the plumbing work for free"

In this case, the verb "do" describes "the work", wherein the kind of work involved is plumbing.

In fact, we omit the actual work described by do so commonly, that the following sentences are accepted as correct in vernacular english, "I'll do the dishes for free" -> "I'll clean the dishes for free" or "I'll do the dish cleaning for free" "I'll do the lawn for a penny" -> "I'll mow the lawn for free" or "I'll do the lawn trimming for free"

Why? Simple. Dishes are meant to be cleaned and lawns are meant to mowed.

- Right? Sure if the context is clear.
- Wrong? If the context is unclear.

Let's imagine for a second, a completely foreign made-up culture wherein it's custom for one person to break dishes after eating and for another person to clean the dishes are eating.

Well, it would be really confusing for them if you said, "I'll do the dishes for free", err, you mean break them or clean them?

So to get back to the original question, when you say, "I'll do the plumbing for free", you're automatically implying that "plumbing" as an adjective only modifies "work" as the noun, so you omit work and make plumbing the noun.

Hope this helps!

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    There is nothing ambiguous in there. It means the same as I will take care of something. Yes, what the taking care means is up to context, but you are basically calling idiom ambiguous now. And idiom is rarely ambiguous as long as speaker and listener understand the idiom. To say "do the plumbing" is ambiguous is saying that "clean the fish" is ambiguous because there might be people expecting you to use soap for that. You have failed to actually say what is ambiguous about do the plumbing. What else could it reasonably mean?
    – oerkelens
    Aug 13, 2014 at 7:09
  • As I said, I meant this explanation strictly in a written context wherein there's no cultural context that usually goes along with vernacular. Idioms operate within a specific cultural context.
    – K -
    Aug 13, 2014 at 7:13
  • I have a greater issue with 'for free'. 'Free' is an adverb, and does not require a 'for'. Otherwise one should say 'I will do it for nothing'. I realise I am on a losing wicket with this because 'for free' has become idiomatic. But I for one never use it that way. It's toddler's English.
    – WS2
    Aug 13, 2014 at 7:27
  • @WS2, totally agree and I missed it, but the correct way of writing it would be "free of charge" instead of "for free." But it goes back to the point that oerkelens made, which is that in vernacular, both of these would be well understood by the listener.
    – K -
    Aug 13, 2014 at 7:33
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    I really do not understand this answer at all. When you do the plumbing, you do the plumbing. There is nothing unclear or ambiguous about it. More to the point, "ambiguous" does not mean "wrong" by any stretch of imagination. Ambiguous is just ambiguous. Written English of any register can and may be ambiguous to its heart's content.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 13, 2014 at 9:42

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