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Quite common it is to see such labels on packets of goods at grocery stores.

Get a free luxury soap with this shampoo bottle.

Not just packets (I understand that every millimeter of space is important there!), we also say it that way...

Hey, where did you get this beautiful watch? ~ Ah, it's free with the LED TV I bought.

It should be free of cost, shouldn't it? The watch does not fly in the air, become free when I buy the idiot-box!

So, please confirm ...

A luxury soap free with this shampoo bottle A luxury soap free of cost with this shampoo bottle
The watch is free with the LED TV The watch came free of cost with the LED TV

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Free of charge is more common than free of cost. – snailplane Jul 8 '14 at 7:57
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Free has several meanings, and usually, the intended meaning is clear from the context. One of the meanings of free is without cost, so if the context is clear, it is not necessary to explicitly mention that costs are involved.

When confusion might arise, the "free beer" idiom is used, for instance by GNU

To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.

Obviously, free speech says nothing about the costs of speaking, but free beer says nothing about the liberties that beer may enjoy.

The example that GNU uses illustrates very well that free is usually understood very well in its appropriate meaning just by the noun that it modifies. Software seems to be one of the cases where confusion could arise, and thus they exemplify it (rather than giving a dictionary explanation).

Off-topic: now you made me wonder about the period during which people started to re-interpret the meaning of the sentence free slaves. :)

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Welcome back friend. +1 for the off topic specially! – Maulik V Jul 8 '14 at 7:38
Thank you :) Couldn't react much from India :) – oerkelens Jul 8 '14 at 7:43
Ah, you were in India. We could have met ;) – Maulik V Jul 8 '14 at 7:45
I once attended a political convention sponsored by a small organization that nevertheless managed to get some big name speakers. One of these speakers explained how: He said the organizer called him and asked, "Do you believe in free speech?" "Well of course," he replied. "That's great!" the other said, "Will you give us one?" – Jay Jul 8 '14 at 14:44
In America, I think the more common phrasing of the options is "free speech versus free lunch". I've never heard "free beer" used as the example other than in the GNU license. – Jay Jul 8 '14 at 15:03


Free has many senses, one of them being 'gratis, without cost'. Others are 'not enslaved', 'without restriction upon movement', 'able to act without restraint', 'totally improvised', 'not exact or literal', 'licentious', and so forth.

If, in a particular context, you must disambiguate, you may do so by qualifying free meaning 'gratis' as free of cost. But there is no such need in your examples. A free bar of soap is one which you need not pay for.

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someone recommended this. I wanted to confirm. Thank you. Do you think this question is to be deleted? – Maulik V Jul 8 '14 at 7:22
@MaulikV While this isn't going to end up as the all time highest voted question, there's nothing wrong with it and no reason to delete it. Let it stay, that way if someone else has the same question later they might find it. – Esoteric Screen Name Jul 8 '14 at 7:33
@EsotericScreenName nod! – Maulik V Jul 8 '14 at 7:34
If this was a question that was in fact confusing you (which would include, "I had a hunch, but I wasn't 100% sure"), then I agree that the question should not be deleted. – J.R. Jul 8 '14 at 9:11

We sometimes say,

"Free, as in Beer."
(See this Wiktionary entry)

to make sure there is no ambiguity (from, say, "free speech").

"Free," in the sense of being without constraints, is really no more than a homonym.

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Beer isn't free. – Dangph Jul 8 '14 at 7:27

As others have noted, yes, the word "free" has multiple meanings, and so in some cases it may be necessary to add additional words to make clear which meaning is intended. (Of course this is true of many words in English, and I suspect in other languages.)

There is little ambiguity in this case. We surely do not mean "politically free", as bars of soap are rarely kidnapped and forced into slavery. :-)

There might be an ambiguity if you were talking about people in a place where slavery is practiced. Like, does "Robert is free" mean that Robert is no longer a slave, or does it mean that he is a slave who is being given away for free as part of a promotion being run by the slave dealer? But I think that in context it would normally be clear.

You can say that a mechanical part is "free" meaning that it's movement is not restricted, usually used as the opposite of "jammed" or "stuck". Like, "The gear was caught on that loose spring, but now it is free." I can imagine a sentence where that would be ambiguous, like, "Hey, I see you got the lawn mower working again. Did you have to buy a new part?" "No, the gear is free now." Does the speaker mean that he didn't have to buy a new part because it was available at no cost? Or does he mean that the only problem was that something was stuck and now that it is not stuck the machine is working without having to replace any parts? But again, I had to work a little to make that sentence ambiguous. Usually the meaning would be clear from the wording of the sentence.

As I said, lots of words in English have multiple meanings, so when it's not clear which meaning is intended, either use a different word or add a few words to clarify. Sometimes people have one meaning in their minds and it doesn't occur to them that other meanings are possible, and so they write or say something that comes out unclear. Comedians often deliberately play on multiple meanings to make a joke, especially if one of those meanings has something to do with sex. But it's not necessary to add words when there is no ambiguity. Doing that just sounds strange. "Get a bar of soap free with every $10 purchase!" is completely clear. You don't need to explain that the soap is not politically free or able to exercise free movement, as neither of those makes sense in context anyway.

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