Free hand [countable; singular]

​ Unrestricted freedom or authority: They gave the director a free hand to cut the budget wherever she wanted​


However, the Random House Learner's Dictionary explains the NOUN GRAMMAR CODES as follows

[count] it can be counted and has a plural. It can be used with the word a or an before it.

[singular] only used in the singular with a singular verb. It can be used with a or an before it.

Therefore, isn't adding both codes in the same word contradictory?

  • 'Give someone a free hand' undergoes limited variation, surely, so that 'She gave them a free hand' (not 'She gave them free hands') is idiomatic. I'd say 'hand' is outside the count/noncount classification here, and certainly not count. // Google results ... "them free hands" has tokens, but is outperformed by "them a free hand" by over 100:1. // Even if the plural-form variant is considered acceptable, as 'She gave them 2/6/17 free hands' is certainly not acceptable, the usage is (see CGEL) non-count. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 18:56
  • Word Reference is not the Random House Dictionary. They appear use the codes slightly differently. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 19:21
  • @PeterShor I checked the paper dictionary too
    – GJC
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 19:27
  • @EdwinAshworth The entry of hand shows either of two grammar codes for its several meanings: [countable] and [singular] wordreference.com/definition/hand
    – GJC
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 19:28
  • 2
    The committee gave both the applicants a free hand regarding their presentations.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 19:35

4 Answers 4


Free hand is "countable" and "singular". So is "potato". If there is more than one potato in the bag you have a bag of "potatoes".

If I gave a "free hand" to both Fred and Jack to pursue their respective duties, I could say I gave both Fred and Jack "free hands".

There is nothing remarkable about this.

  • I'd disagree about 'free hand' being count. As I've said above, the plural form can be found ('they were given free hands to ...') but no one would say 'clothes' is count in 'they were given clothes'. 'They were given 7 clothes'? '7 free hands'? Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 13:29
  • @EdwinAshworth - Uh, how would you know if "clothes" were singular or plural? Closeses? Closei? There is a very practical reason why "clothes" is uncountable. There is no practical issue with making "free hand" countable.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 0:36

Uncountable nouns (or, more precisely, nouns used in uncountable senses) do not take an indefinite article. The fact that one can say "a free hand" means that the noun phrase "free hand" is countable, by definition.

The [singular] code, by contrast, means that this sense is only ever used in the singular.

The two codes therefore do not contradict each other.

  • This has been shown not to be the whole picture here on ELU before. 'He really took a pride in his performance.' Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 18:52
  • @EdwinAshworth I look forward to an answer providing more depth. Or a link to a relevant question or answer.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 18:54
  • 1
    I can link to an earlier question dealing with the 'do non-count usages sometimes take a definite article' issue, but not to one looking at 'gave them a free hand / ??gave them free hands // *gave them two free hands' example. But there are many invariant-for-singular-form idioms where examining for countness is counterproductive. a blinding light / blinding sunlight / a blinding sunlight. Note that your answer does not provide specific support (and is, I have to say, inaccurate). Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 18:59
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth thanks, I missed that one.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 19:04
  • The CGEL test for countness in a usage is 'Can a numeral (or 'a dozen' etc) (but not any old quantifier) be inserted in situ?' 'A blinding light flooded the room' / *'Two blinding lights flooded the room'. 'He took two prides in his appearance' is incontestably unacceptable (except in spoof). Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 19:06

It’s an idiom.

a free hand

Complete freedom to do what one wants or chooses. Can you believe the boss gave me a free hand on this project? Finally, I can present a campaign with my own vision!


The countability is a red-herring.

The OED classes a free hand as a phrase:

P5. to have a free hand (also to have one's hands free): to have the freedom to act completely at one's own discretion. Also with a free hand, with one's hands free; similarly to give a free hand.

1838 Times 5 Jan. 6/2 If..Lord Mulgrave had been sent out to Canada with his hands free, and with unfettered power to carry into effect his own wise and benevolent views.


1989 AJ 28 June 15/3 The council..had wisely given the community group a fairly free hand in converting the building.

2002 Independent 9 Apr. 8/2 The photographer..was recruited by Luciano Benetton..in 1983 with a free hand to sell the brand.

As such, it is set and not really capable of being analysed any more than "He gave me carte blanche."

To add to this, it is probably an idiom - there is not much sense in the literal version - what can you do when one hand is not "free"? It is hardly the complete freedom that the phrase/idiom implies.

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