February 20, 2006

Collateral damage

The usual complaint about the expression for free is that it's pleonastic.  Lose the for.  Omit needless words.  Not You can get it for free, but You can get it free.

Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis (Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, St. Martin's Griffin, 1999) go beyond this pedestrian complaint to maintain that the expression is syntactically ill-formed.  On page 40:

for free (never)
Free is an adjective, not the object of a preposition.  We're not charging you extra for that information.  We're giving it to you for nothing; we're giving it to you freeFree works best when it is free of adornment.

GENERALIZING a proscription against a particular expression -- and especially providing an EXPLANATION for the proscription -- is a potentially dangerous step.  There can easily be collateral damage, extending to all sorts of expressions the proscriber didn't have in mind.  So it is in this case, as in many others.  Innocent bystanders will be wounded.

According to MWDEU, the campaign against for free began in 1943 (OED2 has cites for the expression from 1887, "chiefly U.S."), probably in reaction to a fashion for it.  "Wordy slang" is a typical slam.  The alternatives are (at least) free, gratis, without charge, and for nothing, and MWDEU notes that these are often unsatisfactory.  Gratis and without charge are stiff and formal (in addition, without charge really works only in a selling context, not in a buying one; I got it without charge is possible, but odd); for nothing has a potential for ambiguity (I shoveled the neighbors' snow for nothing could mean 'to no purpose, with no good result'); and plain free is sometimes (to my ears) barely acceptable at all (??I shoveled the neighbors' snow free -- vs. I shoveled the neighbors' snow for free).  In addition, for free is (like for nothing) parallel in structure to for X, where X is an amount of money (I got it for twenty dollars), which is a point in its favor.

Lederer & Dowis hint at the pleonasm criticism ("works best when it is free of adornment"), but focus on a perceived syntactic flaw in the expression: "Free is an adjective, not the object of a preposition."  Let's pass over the odd juxtaposition of syntactic category ("adjective") and syntactic function ("object of a preposition" -- why not "noun"?) and get right to the core of the objection, which is that for free is a combination of a preposition and an adjective, and that's just not the way English syntax works.

This is deeply silly.  For free is an IDIOM, and idioms fairly often show bizarre syntax.  By and large is a textbook example, and others are easily listed.

But it's worse.  As Tommy Grano (who came across the Lederer & Dowis bit while browsing in advice books for something completely different) pointed out to me, there's in vain, also apparently P + Adj.  We then immediately came up with for real and possibly for good (it's not clear whether good is an adjective or a noun here), and since then I've thought of for sure/certain, in short/brief, and at first/last.  Probably there are more.  Another seven (or eight) will do.  [Yes, there are more: at large and in full, for example.  You can stop sending me more cases.  Please.]  The point is that if for free is bad because it's P + Adj, so are all the others.  This is fairly severe collateral damage from the proscription against for free.

Once proscriptions against particular expressions are generalized (and, often, provided with some sort of grounding explanation in grammar), they very often take in a host of other expressions the proscriber never had in mind.  The red pencil turns into a prediction.  This is usually not a good thing.

Another case: Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (Oxford, 2003) warns against relative pronouns with possessive antecedents.  Simplifying Garner's example from real life: "There may have been inimical voices raised among the committee, such as Nikolaus Esterhazy's, who just then had had an unpleasant brush with the composer."  I am as unhappy with such examples as Garner is.  (The history is complex: relative clauses with possessive heads are a survival from much earlier English, and are occasionally to be found in recent times, but now strike most readers as at best awkward.  Things are even worse when the possessive has an overt head: "Nikolaus Esterhazy's voice, who just then had had an unpleasant brush with the composer, was especially strong."  Still worse: "Nikolaus Esterhazy's, who just then had had an unpleasant brush with the composer, voice was especially strong.")

Ok so far.  Such relative clauses are fairly often deprecated in the advice literature.  But Garner doesn't stop there; he goes on to say that the proscription is necessary, citing a more general proscription, with an explanation for it:

The relative pronoun who stands for a noun; it shouldn't follow a possessive because the possessive (being an adjective, not a noun) can't properly be its antecedent.

Eek.  Now Garner has invoked the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (which he does not otherwise seem to espouse) in its full power, and he's set himself against innocent bystanders like Mary's father adores her.  The problem is that if possessives are bad antecedents for relative pronouns because they are adjectives -- they aren't, of course, but Garner thinks they are -- then they're also bad antecedents for personal pronouns like her and she.  That's SERIOUS collateral damage.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 20, 2006 09:02 PM