I ask a question in Unix&Linux forum recently, I say: "I want to make sure that it's not malware contained", moments later, a senior community fellow rewrite that sentence to " I want to make sure that it doesn't contain malware."

I think the grammar of "malware contained" is similar to "sugar free", is this kind of usage correct?

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    "Sugar free" is correct. But "malware contained" is not. Very few adjectives in English can follow the modified noun. – GEdgar Feb 5 '15 at 13:46
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    "Sugar Free" is accepted due to its pervasive use in advertising, not because it represents a common language pattern in English. – Eric Hauenstein Feb 5 '15 at 13:51
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    Why didn't you just write "I want to make sure that it's malware free"? That would have been perfecly fine. Conversely, you can't say "it's not sugar contained", either. – RegDwigнt Feb 5 '15 at 13:53
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    @RegDwigнt But you could say sugar-containing. At least it one could in the UK. – WS2 Feb 5 '15 at 14:01
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    But you could say malware infected. – bib Feb 5 '15 at 14:28

The two are very different. "Malware contained" would mean "contained by malware," not "containing malware." (And would be an unusual usage.) It can get a little confusing how these noun-adjective adjectival phrases imply that something is adjective [from/by/of] the noun, e.g. "free of sugar." Also note that these phrases should be hyphenated in most contexts:

a sugar-free donut


Sugar-free is certainly a well understood, everyday idiom, as in sugar-free lemonade etc. Note also we have alcohol-free beer, lead-free petrol,virus-free software etc.

Where contain is used in this way we normally attach the present participle - containing e.g. a paracetomol-containing cold remedy, arsenic-containing rat poison, asbestos-containing insulation material etc.


There are many terms that revolves around the usage of (noun)-free. In this case, sugar-free would mean:

Something that has little or no quantity of sugar.

However, malware contained would mean that there is the presence of malware itself, and that it would not mean malware-free, because malware-free would mean something that is free of malware.

You could also say that

"I want to make sure that it is malware-free".


I'd write simply "make sure that it contains no malware" but the (awkward, not recommended) analogue to sugar-free here is malware-containing.

To contain means "to hold" or "to have in itself". We can say mineral-containing water or mineral-holding water but not "mineral-held water" and not "water which is mineral-held".

If you consider the verbs hold and contain, it becomes clear that two entities are (implicitly) involved: the holder|container and the thing that is held|contained.

When we form an adjective from the past-participle of these bare infinitives (contained, held), the adjective refers to the passive entity (that which is held) not to the active entity (that which holds).

To refer to the active entity adjectivally, we must use the present participle: holding, containing.

Malware-containing software.

But that is awkward, as I wrote earlier, and it's better to say "does not contain", that is, better to express the idea with subject and verb than with subject and adjective.


You say,

I think the grammar of "malware contained" is similar to "sugar free"

You are wrong.

  1. "malware-contained" is similar to "sugar-freed".

  2. You can invert both of them:

"sugar freed" ---> freed from sugar

"malware contained" ---> contained by malware

As Ronald pointed out, you can say "I want to make sure it is malware-free."

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