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According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "lunch" can either be countable or uncountable.

Correspondingly, the famous saying could be

There's no such thing as free lunch

or

There's no such thing as a free lunch

Googling the former gets about 206K hits and 263K hits for the latter, which seems that both are basically equally common.

However, Ngram Viewer shows the former is much less common than the latter.

Which indicates that the former is not as idiomatic.

Is my understanding correct?

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    "There's no such thing as a free lunch." is an aphorism. It's a fixed phrase. The version without "a" is an error. Even if the meaning is the same, using it will be puzzling to the listener, so it should be avoided. – Jack O'Flaherty Jun 30 at 6:56
  • @JackO'Flaherty Thank you. Is there a website where I can look aphorisms up for free? I googled it and got a page from the University of Pennsylvania but it doesn't seem to support search or contain this aphorism. – JQQ Jun 30 at 7:11
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    The one you found seems to be a listing of listings, and multilingual at that. I searched a bit and found these: https://www.ef.com/wwen/english-resources/english-idioms/ https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/proverbs.html https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/ There will be others. Good luck. – Jack O'Flaherty Jun 30 at 13:39
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My only credentials are being a 50 year old U.S. native speaker and writing technical documents a peripheral part of my work. But under those credentials, I have to agree with the "Ngram Viewer," making your understanding correct.

The second version is absolutely the most common and "correct" in my view. The first version would sound like a non-native speaker.

Without delving into research and only using my experience (because I'm only doing this "on the side," as well), I project the reason for this is that the article "a" adds just a little information to the statement. The intended communication seems to be that there is no such thing as "any possible" free lunch, and the article "a" helps to communicate that.

Sometimes it helps to view things through the eyes of an opposing phrase, by changing the target part of speech just to see what happens. As such, please consider: "There is no such thing as the free lunch." That is not an American phrase, but if it were, it would imply that there is at least a concept of a single, unique "free lunch" out there that exists in the world, like a totally unique artifact to be found by Indiana Jones. :) But "no such thing" means it actually does not exist (and Indy won't find it).

So when one realizes how silly that "the" version sounds, one can more easily see that clarifying "any possible" free lunch through the use of the article "a" appears to be helpful instead of no article at all (which is your first version not "correctly" used).

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  • Thank you. I guess I got most of the answer. In the last paragraph, "one can more easily see that" seems to indicate a fact, that is, "clarifying ... at all", the whole part after "see that". Is my understanding correct? – JQQ Jun 30 at 10:18
  • Taken as a whole, my clause you cite is stating something I see/believe as a "fact" ... that the "a" there "appears to be helpful" (but not necessarily some objective "fact" that it absolutely "is" helpful, without any possible logical counter-argument. If that clarifies. :) – wiigame Jul 2 at 19:23

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