I get stuck (and shocked) by the expression 'shoot the hostages free', in the following context from Never Split the Difference:

But until the Nixon administration, hostage negotiating as a process was limited to sending in troops and trying to shoot the hostages free. In law enforcement, our approach was pretty much to talk until we figured out how to take them out with a gun. Brute force.

Does this mean that troops are allowed to shoot the hostages (direct object of shoot) without cost or at will?

My understanding is ridiculous and hence must be wrong. What does that mean then, especially the usage of 'free' here? Does this expression in that context seem misleading or confusing to native speakers? Thanks in advance.

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    I see how that could be confusing! But, as far as I can tell from the excerpt, "shoot the hostages free" doesn't mean the troops are shooting at the hostages, but instead that they're shooting at the enemy soldiers who are keeping the hostages prisoner. So, attempting to free the hostages by force: i.e. taking out their guards. Like if they were tied up with rope, and the troops cut them free, that would be the rope getting cut and not the people... Commented Jan 18 at 5:49
  • @QuackE.Duck I'd post that as an answer if I were you.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 18 at 6:05
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    Peter's answer is quite correct, but I would like to comment that your original misunderstanding wasn't actually that strange - many authorities hold a 'we do not negotiate with terrorists' position, at least officially, and it has been suggested that killing hostages deliberately would be an even better deterrent to hostage-taking.
    – aantia
    Commented Jan 18 at 11:55
  • "sending in troops" guns blazing - 'splitting the difference' : "Figure we take out the terrorists. Lose twenty, twenty-five percent of the hostages, tops. FBI Agent Johnson: I can live with that." - Compared to, "to talk until we figured out how to take [out that one guy, and only that one guy] with a gun" instead of destroying the building with C4 and covering everyone with broken glass.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18 at 19:32
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    You can post a new question, because that answer is definitely going to be different.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 19 at 7:47

3 Answers 3


"Make someone free" means "liberate them". "Shoot them free" means liberate them by shooting, most likely by shooting those holding them captive.

"Free" here is the opposite of "captive", not the opposite of "costly".

The word order can appear odd. The actual (phrasal) verb is "shoot free", but we do not say "shoot free the hostages". There are several articles on phrasal verbs, for example this one at Grammarly.

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    @LernerZhang, the phrasal verb is shoot free. See my edited answer.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 18 at 6:08
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    I believe "shoot free someone" or "shoot someone free" is an idiom. phrasal verbs tend to have a verb followed by a preposition e.g. cut up, cut down, make of, run out, etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 18 at 6:16
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    I'm.not disputing the usefulness of the linked article, I don't believe "shoot free" is a phrasal verb, I've never seen it listed anywhere. I can't come up with any other situation/phrase that would use this same construction.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 18 at 6:45
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    An analogy would be with "shoot dead" which is shoot + adjective dead; here "shoot free" means shoot so that they become free (not dead). English verbs often take an adjectival object complement as in "paint the wall black", "pick the bones clean", "mark the table reserved", "make the food tasty".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 18 at 10:20
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    I would consider "shoot someone free" to be a witticism that playfully uses a somewhat forced turn of phrase (not common, requires reader to pause and parse it) to highlight the author's negative opinion of the Nixon administration's idea of hostage negotiation, which in the author's opinion is haphazard and badly formulated. The next sentence makes it clear that the author has a distaste for the liberators to focus on using guns to achieve their goal, and the phrasing of "shoot the hostages free" very much matches the contrast between the approaches that the author is trying to point out.
    – Flater
    Commented Jan 18 at 22:51

One thing I haven't seen anyone mention: The meaning you suggested, of "without cost or at will," could have been created by freely instead of free. That would make all the difference:

Shoot the hostages freely

In this phrase, "freely" is an adverb and just describes the way in which you shoot.

Shoot the hostages free

In this version, "free" is a complement, part of a phrasal verb as noted elsewhere, and describes the condition of the hostages after shooting.

It should also be noted that this phrase isn't really common. It can be understood, mostly because it mirrors other more common scenarios in which you "[verb] [something] [condition]." A similar but more common usage might be, if you are entangled in a net or vines or similar, I might "cut you free." (But if I "cut you freely," the situation is very different!)

  • 1
    I was reading a 1950s electrical engineering textbook and came across a section about 'faults' (short-circuits or current leakage) between adjacent buried conductors and the author said 'in many cases they can be tricky to locate because they burn themselves clear' Commented Jan 18 at 22:59
  • To clarify, the insulation around two adjacent buried cables (which are at different potentials) could deteriorate enough to allow 'leakage' current to pass between them, generating heat, which further damages the insulation, making it even more conductive, until eventually the heat generated is enough to make the remaining degraded material catch fire and burn to ash which disperses. Commented Jan 22 at 11:14

The accepted answer is good and correct, but slightly misleading.

While the meaning is clear (freeing hostages via shooting), and @Peter correctly identifies that this acts as a phrasal verb, "shooting [something] free" is not a standard idiom.

The reason it is clear anyway is likely due to other matching constructions that are standard and idiomatic. For example, you can "cut [something] free," or "cut [something] loose," which both mean cutting the bonds that are holding something in place. The cutting leads to the result that [something] is free; you are not usually cutting the thing itself.

By just analyzing the words, you could easily read "shoot the hostages free" as "shoot the hostages, so they are 'free'." That's not an impossible meaning, but it is also not the natural meaning. In the same way, "[someone] went to sleep" does not naturally indicate that someone died, even though you do sometimes see sleep used as a euphemism for death.

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