I often hear German native speakers (I am one myself) ask those questions, and it seems to me that they are pretty much translated word by word into English.

  • Is this chair free?
  • There is a free room in the house.

What is the proper way of asking, say, whether a chair on a table is taken or not?

For me it seems like the second statement means that the room is free, as in one doesn’t have to pay for it (gratis). Or does it also mean that there is one extra room in the house?

  • I just ask "Is anyone sitting here?". The second doesn't make sense to me and the first doesn't sound natural. – American Luke Sep 11 '12 at 14:54
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    See en.wiktionary.org/wiki/free def. 8 Not in use. People will either say, "Is this seat taken?" or "Is this seat free?" when deciding whether it's okay for them to sit there. – Jim Sep 11 '12 at 14:54
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    There are at least three meanings of free in English ("free chair", "free sample", "Free University of Berlin"). Your first sentence sounds natural, and for the second, the meaning is clear, although I'd probably use the word "available". – Peter Shor Sep 11 '12 at 14:55
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    English speakers are aware of the ambiguity of "free" and we just work around it, so the answer (solution to the ambiguity) is different for each context and will have many variations. "Can I take this chair?" "Do you have a room to spare?" "My book is free only to read, not copy or change – like free-as-in-beer, not free-as-in-speech." – SevenSidedDie Sep 11 '12 at 16:13
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    I think the question title is a bit revealing - "free of charge" is not the only meaning of "free". I clicked into this question due to confusion - "free of charge" is completely unrelated to "unoccupied". – Izkata Sep 11 '12 at 19:35

The following are free from ambiguity:

Is this seat taken?

How much does this chair cost?

It's unlikely that you need to be so precise, though, since there's usually enough context to distinguish.

"There is a free room in the house."

is ambiguous, but I would assume it meant "an available room".

  • This is the correct answer. +1! Isn't English fun? – narx Sep 11 '12 at 16:33
  • One could argue that "taken" is prone to ambiguity as well ("No, sir, I'm not taking that chair anywhere," e.g.) – J.R. Sep 11 '12 at 18:48
  • Is this chair available? – dr jimbob Sep 11 '12 at 19:07
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    @J.R. I guess "in use" is less ambiguous, but no native speaker would assume "taken" means anything but "unavailable" or "spoken for" or "in use" unless they were being intentionally punny. – Charles Sep 11 '12 at 20:09
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    @Charles: I agree, of course. When I made my comment, I didn't think anyone would really be confused by "Is this seat taken?", but I did think it was worth pointing out that it's hard to get away from the ambiguity problem, because so many words have alternate meanings. As you said, when you get right down to it, even the O.P.'s original "Is this seat free?" question is readily understood in most contexts: in the theater, it means, "Is this seat taken?" while at the end of the driveway, it means, "Are you really giving this recliner away for nothing?" – J.R. Sep 12 '12 at 2:29

"Is this chair free?" would not ordinarily be misunderstood, since presumably you and your interlocutor would have the empty chair before you (or beside you).

Another common US idiom, which avoids the problem, is "Is this chair taken?"

If on the other hand you were asking where you might find a place to sit, you would probably ask "Is there a chair free anywhere?"

In a commercial context "a free room" would indeed imply that no charge is made for the room. This implication may be avoided by postpositing the adjective; you might be told: "There's a room free in the house".

Again, however, a different word would be more likely: "There's a room available".

In a non-commercial context, where there's no ambiguity, free is acceptable: "If you need a place to crash we've got a room free."

And if you're asking for a room either would serve: "Do you have a room free?" or "Do you have a room available?"

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    I have had the experience of sitting in a free (untaken) chair, only to have an angry Italian gentleman harangue me because the chair wasn't free (of charge) to sit in. That was a fault of assumptions about context though, not an English miscommunication. :) But there do exist contexts where chairs and "free" aren't obvious. – SevenSidedDie Sep 11 '12 at 16:16
  • @SevenSidedDie Hmm ... That seems odd to me, perhaps because I come from the theatre, where you don't ordinarily get the opportunity to ask if a specific seat is untaken except in contexts where paying for the seat is taken for granted. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 11 '12 at 16:22
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    It was very odd. If you're ever on the beach of the Italian Mediterranean and there are a bunch of seats that look like a public convenience (all in a row and matching) with no-one around, they're probably rentals and there's a "seatlord" watching them some distance away. – SevenSidedDie Sep 11 '12 at 16:23
  • Maybe this is a cultural or regional thing. I very frequently run into situations where I attend a meeting where people are sitting around tables, very likely with others that they know, and it is routine for someone to indicate an empty chair and ask "Is this seat free?" If someone was sitting next to his friend and has stepped away for a moment, it would be rude to take his chair. – Jay Sep 11 '12 at 21:20
  • @Jay I will edit to reflect your qualification. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 11 '12 at 22:21

The English word free has several meanings, some of which can be easily conflated:

  • Unoccupied: The room is free. I heard this a lot in college, when we had to schedule the rooms for meetings/classes. A "free" room was one that had not yet been scheduled, and so was vacant.
  • Costs Nothing: Here's some free advice. This is the most common connotation of free, and sometimes people take advantage of that to conflate ideas.
  • Unrestricted: Free speech. This tends to be used a lot when discussing what one may or may not do. This is what people mean when they say "it's a free country".
  • To set free: as in "Free all the prisoners and we'll let your wife go".

There may be others. If anyone else comes up with one, please add it.

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    I think you've covered all the main senses, although strictly speaking I think #1 and #3 are really just equivalents being applied to different contexts. The unoccupied chair is "free", in the sense that you are "free" to make use of it (even if in fact all that really means is you're free to sit in it so long as you pay the rental man when he comes by in a minute! :) – FumbleFingers Sep 11 '12 at 22:21
  • I suppose that a near-blind person, struggling to help tidy away and stack the institutional chairs that clip together in rows, might ask "Is this chair free?" with the 'unrestricted', 'unfastened' sense. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 11 '12 at 22:32
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    free as in speech, free as in beer – Mitch Sep 11 '12 at 23:51
  • People who have a large supply of free beer available often end up talking pretty freely. – Jay Sep 13 '12 at 19:56

Yes, in English "free" can mean "no charge" or it can mean "available". So, "Is this chair free?" could mean "Can I use this chair without paying?" or "Is this chair not being used by someone else?"

It's usually clear from context which you mean. (I'm sure there are cases where this ambiguity has caused embarassment, like someone asks if something is free meaning no charge, the other person thinks he is asking if it is available for purchase, and so the first person begins using it or carries it off and then is surprised when he is asked to pay.) When in doubt, use different words. Like ask, "Is there a charge to use this chair?" or "Is this chair available?"

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