Posted by: Jack Henry | August 2, 2017

Editor’s Corner: The first one is free!

Dear Editrix,

Is it correct to say “for free” in this headline… or anywhere for that matter? It just sounds awkward to me.


Land of the Free

Dear Free,

As always, an excellent question from one of our readers—you are so thoughtful and smart.

As far as a definite answer, I’m afraid I don’t have one. I looking into several resources, and here’s what I found overall.

Sticklers, strict grammarians, grammar police—whatever you may want to call them—say that for free is grammatically incorrect. Here is the rationale, from The Grammar Monster:

1) For free is grammatically unsound. A preposition must sit before something functioning as a noun (i.e., a noun, a pronoun, or a noun phrase). Since free is an adjective, it cannot be preceded by the preposition for.

2) For free is logically unsound. Strict grammarians state that for is a shortened version of in exchange for, and free is a shortened version of free of charge. So, if both were expanded to their full versions, we would have in exchange for free of charge, which is nonsensical.

So, the proper thing is to refer to something as free.

Now on the other hand, some people will tell you for free is fine. It’s a commonly used idiom, and it is used with increasing frequency. As you can see on the chart below, the use of for free has surpassed the use of free of charge and for nothing.

From Google Books Ngram Viewer:

I would suggest that you can use for free when you are talking casually, but to stick with free or free of charge when writing to a professional audience.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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