Live for free or die

My headline is meant to be funny. A reader has taken us to task several times for using “for free.” This reader, Gerry from Chapel Hill, considers this phrase an error.

Using “for” with “free,” commentators have said, is wrong because “free” as an adjective or an adverb cannot be the object of a preposition (for) and because the phrase is redundant. You just don’t need to say “for free.” It’s not the same as “for nothing.” Theodore Bernstein in “The Careful Writer” rejects “for free,” and so do other experts.

However, “for free” is an idiom, and idioms cannot always be taken strictly. Of course, “free” is usually better, but, as Bryan Garner writes in “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” “The phrase is too common to be considered an error.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage dismisses the objection to “for free.”

Bryan Garner points out that “for free” is sometimes needed for the rhythm and sense of a sentence. Barbara Wallraff in “Word Court” uses this example: “I wanted to get the car free” could mean that I wanted to get the car without cost or it could mean that I needed to get the car out of the muck in which it was stuck.

Still, the reader has raised my awareness again about this phrase. I will be on the lookout for it in copy that I edit. I advise writers to challenge their impulse to use the phrase. If the sentence would make sense and sound right with “free,” then cut the “for.”

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.