Grammar Wednesday, Part Two!

I couldn’t come up with anything fun to write about this morning, but one of my students, a wonderful Renaissance Man, asked me this:

“Is it ungrammatical to say that someone can have something “for free”?

HUH! I don’t know!

We do say that we can buy something “for” this or that much money; “I bought my car for 16, 000 dollars,” for example, or “the grocery store has a special on oranges; four for a dollar.” The word “for,” in this case, is a preposition that means “in consideration or payment of;” we trade this (money) for that (the car or the oranges).

Free is an adjective – it describes something; it’s not a quantity or a noun. Something either is or is not free; I don’t exchange “free” for something else.

I told my student that I really didn’t know the answer to his question, but that I’d put it to some smart friends of mine (that’s YOU!). What do you think? I understand that it’s descriptively grammatical – we say it all the time – but is it prescriptively grammatical? If we look at it from a standpoint of pure structure, is it correct to say that you can have this “for free”?



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10 responses to “Grammar Wednesday, Part Two!

  1. rtyuiop

    Oh gosh – I’m used to calling ‘prescriptive grammaticality’ something which someone, somewhere has said (in defiance of all evidence, usually) something along the lines of – “No, that’s ungrammatical! Thou shalt not say ‘for free’ lest ye be cast out!’.

    If language is rule based (which I’m assuming everyone here can agree on), and we use it all the time without indication that it’s an error, doesn’t that mean the rules allow it?


  2. Oh, CERTAINLY, Danny – this is something that my linguist buddies have been teaching me for about two years now (and I’m MUCH better at being descriptive than I ever was, though I’ve still got a long way to go). It’s an academic question, really – much like the “inches of rain” question last week.

    My student’s father was taught by a “thou shalt not!” teacher that “for free” was ungrammatical, and my student wanted to know my opinion. I’d truly never even considered the question before he asked me but when I did, I could see that it was a valid one.

    SO – what do you THINK?!

  3. rtyuiop

    I think it’s fine – I think it’s one of those things that some of the usage-book-writing-people pick out as bad, and others think is fine. One of the hazards of people writing up a bunch of rules that they personally want!

    So I guess it comes down to: it’s right if the intended audience/reader isn’t likely to object to it, and it’s wrong (well, bad, at least) if that audience/reader doesn’t like it…


  4. This is just an idiom, and there are plenty of idioms in English. If you attempt to apply traditional analyses of English grammar to them, you come up against a wall, because they can do things that are structurally illicit – which is not the same as ‘ungrammatical’.

    ‘Structurally illicit’ means that the productive word and sentence formation rules (morpho-syntax or structure) of a language won’t predict their occurrence, yet they happen anyway and are usually one of a kind. They would ordinarily be counter-examples to normal English syntactic structures in that, as you point out, free is ordinarily an adjective and for is ordinarily a preposition, albeit an odd one. On that basis, a prepositional phrase is generally not a preposition plus an adjective:

    *for heavy
    *for truthful
    *for impressive

    But there are clearly cases where a preposition and an adjective is fine:

    I’ll live for ever
    left him for dead
    finish it for good

    Moreover, it can productively form a phrase with progressive participle of any verb, and the meaning is invariably a purposive one:

    the car’s for going home
    this food is for eating
    these boots were made for walking

    Basically, I don’t think that the argument that a preposition like for can only go with a noun holds much water anyway, and even if you accept that, then the idiom analysis is still valid, until such a time as these idioms become productive, i.e., structurally licit.

  5. OK, first of all, Jangari – you rock!

    We do a direct mail program at the bank that offers some kind of premium item when you open a new checking account. It is referred to as “Free Checking. Free Gift.” In fact, in the early years, that was the actual headline on the piece. After we’d been doing this for about three years, a customer emailed us to say that “Free Gift” was redundant. I agreed, but since “Free Checking. Gift.” sounds so stilted, I asked her indulgence on this one. It is, after all, ad copy….

  6. Michael, you’re right – Jangari DOES rock. I’ve got some smart readers here, and I love learning from all of you (my linguist buddies in particular; they kick my prescriptive grammatical ass all the time…)

    It’s funny that you mention the “free gift” thing, Michael, because that’s EXACTLY the thing I brought up with my student when he asked me the question about the use of “for free.” The structure bugs the crap out of me; gifts are, by their very nature, free!

    I understand WHY we say it – you’re right, “free checking. Gift.” sounds awful – but it still sets me a little on edge whenever I hear it.

  7. Pingback: A Good One « A Teacher’s Education

  8. fermat

    The “for” is always superfluous and bad form. Free, by itself, or free of charge or for nothing would be good substitutes. Lovinger points out that “free” is an adverb in that sentence and “for free” makes no more sense than “for expensively” would make. One should use just “free,” “free of charge,” or “for nothing.”

    Authority: The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style by Paul W. Lovinger.
    Published by Penguin Reference (New York: 2000).

    As said before “free gift” is redundant. The ad copy should have said “gift with account activation” or something of the like. “Free gift” is now part of the venacular so it’s readily accepted as correct grammar.

  9. You seem to imply that “prescriptively grammatical” means “looking at it from a standpoint of pure structure.” But that’s not what it means. “Prescriptively grammatical” would mean “acceptable to the sort of people who write books about English usage.” And it is not acceptable to The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style or The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. But it is considered acceptable by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Take your pick.

    Free gift: not all gifts are free, because “free” doesn’t only mean “without charge.” A gift can imply obligations that are not financial.

    “What kind of gift isn’t free? The kind that comes with strings attached. The widespread offering of gifts as part of product promotions has given the free gift a meaning all its own. A free gift ought, therefore, to be offered without an obligation to test-drive a vehicle, enroll in a book club, or open a savings account. Ought. Maybe the real problem is in using the word gift to refer to something that entails an obligation.”

  10. smund


    When I was in school, they called your progressive participle a gerund — a nominalization of a verb. Thus, it is proper to place it after the preposition.
    Also, “for ever” is usually encountered as the adverb “forever.”
    You note two other exceptions, which may have other explanations, or which may reflect substandard usage that over time became standard. Perhaps the adjectives in those or other exceptions are shorthand for the nouns that naturally go with them, e.g.,”a dead man.”
    Finally, “for good” is part of an old English idiom, “for good and all,” according to OED.

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