Free or For Free???

I’ve been thinking a lot about which is correct: “free” or “for free.”  

Grammar Monster says “Strict grammarians will tell you that ‘for free’ is grammatically incorrect because ‘free’ is not a noun, and this means it cannot be preceded by ‘for’ (a preposition). In their view, something is ‘sold for nothing’ or is ‘sold free.’ However, through common usage, ‘for free’ has become acceptable.”

Collins Dictionary, My English Teacher, and StackExchange back this up. What do you think? Leave a comment!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

35 thoughts on “Free or For Free???

    1. I love it – honestly I would never nit pick this. I’ve freely used “for free.” And I have taken the “bite me” attitude about a lot of other things too. Thanks for the visit!

  1. I often think to call oneself a strict grammarian is to admit ignorance of language, and where ignorance is lacking something more malicious, ulterior.

    “For free” is obviously correct, being a construction routinely used by native speakers and readily understood by its native speakers. Native speakers cannot the actual grammar of their language wrong, it is ingrained into them.

    If strict grammarians were strictly correct then, when confronted with “for free”, they would not offer “for nothing” or any suitable alternative; they would say “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.”

    It being correct, the sensible strict grammarian would think, “Hmm, this does not fit my written rules, yet it clearly fits some deeper grammar within me.” They would then, it is hoped, be stricken by a revelation or two:

    (1) language, and its real grammarS, precedes the formulation of grammatical rules. A given, since language could not begin if someone had first to make the rules — speaking historically. Also a given, from the perspective of each individual, it’s a mistake to think of teaching your child their first language; they learn it from you, but you need not direct their learning, children simply absorb the language around them, hence the true rules are “ingrained”.

    (2) the grammatical rules I’ve so strictly been adhering to are not “the” rules, but a set of rules — and, in actual fact, just guidelines — applicable only to a certain context, which we call “formal”.

    They may, if particularly open minded, but baby steps are recommended here — We mustn’t scare the doubting prescriptivist: remember until now their view of language has been dim, muted; seeing how expansive language really is may have a dazzling effect, it would be a great loss were they to turn back now. They may, to continue, realise:

    (3) those same grammatical rules I’ve been strictly adhering to: why a large portion of them are “rules” only in so far as they are a subjective declaration of preference by, in many cases, a crotchety old white man, often several years before I was even born. (On this I recommend: ‘The Lexicographer’s Dilemma’ by Jack Lynch). Why that’s not authoritative at all.

    Assuming, though, the minimal degree of revelation. They realise that a true grammar precedes the rules, but do not realise that “the rules” are context dependent. Like a scientist, he has a model, but has found an exception — like an honest scientist he aims to rectify the model.

    How despite, “free” not being a noun can it follow a preposition? This is the real sad thing, since language is perhaps the prime imaginative act — is *perhaps* the act that makes all other imagination springs — why apply “rules” with no imagination?

    First of all, what does it mean that “free” is not a noun? Who said? The error here is phrasing a grammatical rule in the negative: “only a noun can follow a preposition”, really means, “whatever follows a preposition and makes sense (is understandable to other than speaker) *is* a noun.”

    Noun ought not to be understood as a category of words but a function of them. Any word, in circumstances, might be given any function — they only haven’t all been done yet. Here, for a fact, “free” is acting as a noun — noun being a function, what acts as a noun *is* a noun.

    But it’s meaningless, you say — though you’d say only disingenuously, since you know full well what it means. I know you know because you’ve said you mean “for nothing”. Indeed, an abstact noun, right? That wasn’t really difficult to solve. In the phrase, “for free”, “free” takes on the properties of an abstract, becoming synonymous with “nothing”.

    Equally acceptable would be interpreting “for free” as figurative speech. And there are other methods I’m sure. Equally acceptable is forgoing all of this and lumping it in the “informal” category; but with an acknowledgement that the difference between “formal” and “informal” is not a matter of correctness, but of supposed suitability to fairly limited circumstances.

    The strict grammarian might also reflect on the fact that while they combat the entry of “for free” into the language now. It is not unlikely a future strict grammarian will lament the degradation of the language now that people have stopped using “for free” in favour of some other construction.

    (‘You’s and such above don’t mean anyone, just fictive ‘you’s to keep track of my argument. I had thoughts. 😅)

    1. Hi Mark – thanks for such a thorough discussion of this grammar issue. What it really comes down it is communication. If the point is made and received accurately, then the grammar should not be questioned.

  2. “For free” is something I’d say in conversation, Barb, but probably wouldn’t use in writing. “I got it at no cost” or “It was free” would be my choices for text. I try to stick with grammar rules unless writing informal dialog. Great question, one I hadn’t considered.

    1. I like “at no cost.” That’s a nice compromise. And I agree with you that in formal writing, I would not use “for free.” I think “for free” sounds a little better on social media, though. That’s what got me thinking about it – I promote a lot of free library programs and services on their social media accounts and have often used “for free.” Thank you for the visit and comment!

  3. What I love about language and grammar is that it is so dynamic and constantly evolving. Although I tend to naturally say “free,” I have absolutely no problem with “for free.” Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Hi Donna – It seems to be more common here in the northeast US, but I don’t have a problem with either. In fact I’m guilty of having used “for free” pretty often! Thanks for the visit – hope you are doing well 🙂

    1. Hi Jennifer. As Darlene said, maybe it’s a regional thing. It’s pretty common here in the northeast US. I’ve heard “gratis” but never “free gratis.” That sounds repetitious and redundant! Thanks for stopping by – hope you are doing well and that Hurricane Ian doesn’t pay you a visit.

      1. It does sound repetitive, though it isn’t formal. I used to hear the old folks say it when I was much younger. I googled it just to make sure and it is a thing.
        No worries here so far from the hurricanes, but I do worry about them becoming more prevalent!

      1. We came through just fine, on the northeastern tip of the state. I grieve for those on the southwest coast who didn’t fare so well. They will get federal and state assistance, but their lives have been woefully disrupted. Thanks for asking!

    1. Good move, Rosaliene! Thanks for reading and commenting. I admit I sometimes use “for free” in my social media role at the library where I work because it sounds less choppy.

  4. I used to manage a group of technical writers and they would love to debate this kind of thing. Grammar is far from a precise science! I’m taking the Fifth!

    1. Yes, I get it. The grammarian in me wants to stick to “free” although I admit in my library social media job, I have often used “for free.” Thanks, Derrick!

    1. Haha! Because I do social media for my job and we are always promoting free services, I’ve started to pay more attention to “free” vs “for free.” I used to say “for free” on SM but I’m trying to switch over to just “free.” That said, I think grammar on SM is a lot looser so the casual use of “for free” might look and sound a little better. Still deciding. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Quite a few rules of grammar are broken in everyday conversation. In my writing, I deliberately break grammar rules in dialogue because I don’t think people keep the rules in conversation.

    1. Hi Tim, yes grammar rules during conversation often go out the window and that’s fine by me. Breaking the rules when you write dialogue makes the writing realistic. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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