I heard a Burger King promotion on a radio, saying:

Beautiful! 2 for 5! // It means 2 hamburgers, 5 bucks

To me, '2 for 5' sounds like you pay 2 hamburgers to buy 5 bucks, which is illogical.

I would think '5 for 2' makes more sense, meaning you pay 5 bucks for 2 hamburgers.

Question:

  1. Any reason behind the usage of '2 for 5', instead of '5 for 2'?

  2. Can '5 for 2' make sense as well? Can we say "5 bucks for 2 hamburgers" or "5 for 2"?

up vote 60 down vote accepted

You seem to understand most of the implications, but the verb you are adding to the front leads to a different meaning than what was intended. Specifically, you expand "2 for 5" as

Pay 2 dollars for 5 hamburgers

However, the intended meaning of the phrase is

Buy 2 hamburgers for 5 dollars

When "X for Y" is used to describe a sale or deal that I've seen in the US, the meaning is "Get X in exchange for Y" in some fashion, with X being what you get not what you give.

  • 1
    "A penny for your thoughts" follows this construction as well. First what you get (a penny), second what you give (your thoughts). – cmm Nov 4 '17 at 20:18
  • 1
    This is a good point, but we might note it is not the only answer. The OP is right that it could also be interpreted the other way. – Mike M Nov 5 '17 at 12:33
  • 2
    I feel this has something to do with how shops want to phrase things. Adverts always emphasise what the customer will get above what they have to give. It's fairly unusual to come across an advert using the word “pay”, whereas “get” is very common. – James Wood Nov 6 '17 at 0:36
  • 8
    @MikeM: You're not wrong, but we need to observe the intent of the speaker here. "A TV for $500" is what a vendor uses because he is focusing on the price of the object (e.g. "In my shop, you can get/buy a TV for $500). "$500 for a TV" is what a customer uses, because he is focusing on what he's getting for the money he's spending (e.g. "$500 for a TV!? Money doesn't grow on trees, you know!") – Flater Nov 6 '17 at 9:06
  • 3
    @Flater has the right idea here. This isn't just a matter of units or verbs -- it's a matter of whose perspective is being emphasized. – senderle Nov 6 '17 at 15:15

There is no reason nor is there a rule. It's all context based.

If BK is talking about whoppers and they say "2 for 5" you can deduce two whoppers for five dollars. That's because it is the reasonable idea. It is not two dollars for five whoppers... that's too cheap to make any sense.
If they were talking about individual chicken nuggets and they said "2 for 5" you would deduce two dollars for five nuggets. That price would be reasonable, whereas 5 dollars for only two little chicken nuggets is not.

People will understand the phrase automatically in a way that makes sense.

  • 1
    Agree with this. The commercial is (likely) focused entirely on "Whoppers", so "2 for 5" describes Whoppers. – Harrison Paine Nov 3 '17 at 14:19
  • 16
    "If they were talking about individual chicken nuggets and they said "2 for 5" you could deduce two dollars for five nuggets." I don't think I agree that if the specific item changes, we would assume the other relation. – eques Nov 3 '17 at 17:00
  • 4
    I think the answerer has a point, but just hasn't connected the dots for us. I think what she/he is saying is that people will hear the numbers in a way that makes sense. So for something more expensive, we would understand two items for 5 dollars, while for something inexpensive we would understand 5 of them for 2 dollars. – Mike M Nov 5 '17 at 12:35

It's a more-or-less idiomatic construction declaring an exchange rate. Objectively, it doesn't actually matter what's being exchanged for what; if it's burgers for bucks, bananas for books, or cookies for crayons, "two for five" implies that two of something is being exchanged for five of something else. In this case, Burger King is offering to exchange two burgers for five bucks.

Normally, in a case like this, one would think that the person with the bucks is buying burgers. If it helps, think of it a little backwards - BK is buying bucks, and paying in burgers, so they're paying two burgers to buy five bucks - "two burgers for five bucks".

  • 3
    A better way to think about it is that the customer can (buy) 2 burgers for 5 bucks. This is a standard construction for sale prices: "T-shirts are 3 for 20!" means the customer can purchase 3 (t-shirts) for 20 (dollars). – BradC Nov 3 '17 at 15:00

Consider it a (very) brief form of a construction like this:

(You can have one for three dollars, or) two for five.

That's just the use that has come to be idiomatic. There's no real reason why one is more popular than the other.

  • 2
    This doesn't actually clarify the querent's confusion, just gives another example of the usage that is confusing him. – Jeff Zeitlin Nov 3 '17 at 13:29

One of the functions of money is that it acts as a common measure of market values as well as the typical medium of exchange. In the US, the dollar is that common measure and typical medium. Consequently, if money is involved in a retail transaction in the US, dollars need not be explicitly mentioned.

An exchange involves at least two different parties and at least two different items. A phrase like "2 for 5" is an abbreviation for "2 A's in exchange for 5 B's," and what A and B are must be filled in by context. In the Us, at least either A or B is very likely to be dollars. With Burger King, which does not engage in barter but does sell hamburgers, A and B are likely to be hamburgers and dollars. How do you know which is which? You have to know that, at present, getting five hamburgers for two dollars is extremely unlikely.

Language does not exist in a social vacuum, and people who write ads try to take the common understandings of the time and place into account.

In English, it is idiomatic for the price to be second. Consider:

Buy 2 for the price of 1

...is often abbreviated as...

2 for 1

...and, conventionally, most shorthand deals will follow that pattern. The 'buy' prefix can be assumed and the 'for' can always be inferred to be shorthand for 'for the price of'.

As to why it is this way, I don't believe there is any strong reason for it past arbitrary convention. Doing it the other way against the current consistency would cause confusion and quickly be corrected for being misleading.

The phrases "Buy 2 hamburgers for 5 dollars" and "Spend 2 dollars to get 5 hamburgers" could both be reasonably shortened to "2 for 5". (As Danikov points out, "Buy 2 for the price of 1" is frequently shortened to "2 for 1", making "Buy 2 for the price of 5" an odd, but reasonable interpretation for the phrase as well.)

Burger King knows this, which is why they immediately clarify the ambiguity.

As to why "Buy 2 for 5 dollars" is preferred over "Spend 5 dollars to get 2", that comes down to psychology. Typically the beginning of a sentence gets more attention than the middle, and Burger King wants listeners to be focused on what they are getting, not what they are spending.

  • 1
    I see the logic, but "Buy two for the price of five" isn't a remotely reasonable interpretation, for the simple reason that nobody would ever advertise "Hey, this is a really terrible deal!" Sure, they might try to sell you two for the price of five, but they'd never tell you they were doing so. – David Richerby Nov 5 '17 at 2:02

For whatever reason, when using the "X for Y" idiom, the thing that you (as a consumer) gets is usually specified first. I think it's because the longer form of the phrase would be something like "Get (or perhaps 'have') X in exchange for Y". In this case, "get 2 burgers in exchange for 5 dollars".

If you go back to market traders and speed talking trying to sell something. Try saying it: one buck for five now say quickly: five for a buck

I don't know about you but my brain processes the 2nd one faster. A common tactic is to keep everything at the same price so:

Apples 5 for a buck pears 3 for a buck bananas 2 for a buck

You brain just registers I get 5 apples, 3 pears and don't need to hear the rest of the sentences. Easier to communicate in a market square vocally and therefore carried on to mainstream sales.

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.