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I am looking for a ____ software to help me do something.

Is "gratis" more suitable than "free"?

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    No. Don't use gratis. And free in the software world may not mean what you think it means. Perhaps you're looking for "freeware": "I am looking for some freeware to help me do something." – Jim Feb 11 '15 at 9:14
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    "free in the software world" may mean? I'm curious, what is the nuance of free when applied to software that would distinguish it from freeware? I had thought freeware and free software would be the same thing. – djna Feb 11 '15 at 9:23
  • Assuming you mean 'no cost' then use either of them; gratis has fewer alternative meanings than free. thefreedictionary.com/gratis and thefreedictionary.com/free – Frank Feb 11 '15 at 9:30
  • free as in freedom or free as in free beer? – Janning Feb 11 '15 at 9:42
  • @djna It's close enough in this case: catb.org/jargon/html/F/free-software.html – blgt Feb 11 '15 at 9:51
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First, software is uncountable, so "a ____ software" is not correct. Either say:

  • ____ software
  • a piece of ____ software
  • a ____ program

This is a complex question. Here are some facts:

  • Most English speakers do not commonly use the word gratis, but (I think) most people will probably understand what it means. Generally, when we talk about a zero-cost item, we use the word "free". Usually, gratis describes a zero-cost service, especially in a legal context.

  • The English word "free" can mean either "zero cost" or "liberated; not oppressed or controlled" ("free beer" versus "free speech" or "a nation of free people")

  • The Free Software Foundation (FSF) advises that people use the adjective "free" with "software" only when you mean "related to freedom" (i.e., for software that can be freely shared and modified, according to the FSF's definition). People who agree with the FSF's suggestion do not use "free" to refer to software price, because it can be confused with the "freedom" meaning of "free". Instead, those people use freeware or gratis to describe zero-cost software.

What word you should use depends on two factors:

  • what kind of "free" you mean (zero-cost or freedom-granting)
  • whether you care about the FSF's suggestion to reserve "free software" for software that can be freely shared and changed

Here's a chart showing what word to use:

                               | Zero-cost                 |  Free to share/edit
-------------------------------+-------------------------------------------------
I care what the FSF says       | "gratis" or "freeware"    |  "free" or "libre"
-------------------------------+---------------------------+---------------------
I don't care what the FSF says | "free"                    |  "free"

Note that the bottom-right box is not likely to be needed: if you don't care what the FSF has to say, you probably don't need a word to describe their particular definition of "freedom-respecting" software.

Note also that "libre" is not a standard English word. It is used exclusively by people talking about software freedom, and it would not be understood by someone who has never heard of the FSF's definition of "free software".

  • +1 but I don't think most English speakers would understand gratis (at least I've never heard it in English before, only in Spanish) – hunter Feb 11 '15 at 16:04
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    I'm a native AmE speaker and gratis is familiar to me; I understand it as common knowledge among English speakers, not an esoteric word. However, I hear it not as English but as Latin inserted into English, like e.g., i.e., ad hominem, per se, persona non grata, etc. – Ben Kovitz Feb 11 '15 at 16:23
  • Native AmE: I hear gratis used but almost always at the end of a phrase, and meaning "for free. " "Buy three shirts and we'll throw in a hat gratis." OR "I'm giving away copies of my new CD, gratis." – Adam Feb 11 '15 at 16:36
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    Native AmE - I tend to hear gratis in terms of a free service instead of a physical item. I'll do this task for you gratis. – Catija Feb 11 '15 at 17:11
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We sometimes use the phrase "Free, gratis and for nothing" effectively saying three times there is no charge. This usually has a humorous overtone.

Gratis does have a slightly different flavour to Free, Gratis often being applied to a personal service being given not only for no charge but with a willing spirit.

In your case I would say "free software".

Please note that the use of "a" sounds bad to most native English speakers, we would no more say "a software" than say "a glassware".

  • "Software" being a mass noun, like most other words for materials. I think the best singular noun is "a program" or "an application". – stangdon Feb 11 '15 at 12:11
  • "free software" ≠ "freeware" – user11153 Feb 11 '15 at 14:11
  • user11153, I agree, but I suspect most non-software folks don't understand the distinction. It would be more helpful if you gave a reference or explanation, and better still suggest what the OP should say. – djna Feb 11 '15 at 15:36
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Since there has been a HUGE abuse of my previous answer, I might as well redo my answer.

In a spanish context if you say "Yo quiero algo free", it means I want something free. In a english context if you say "I want something gratis", it means I want something free.

So lets apply that to your sentence:

I am looking for a ____ software to help me do something.

I am looking for a free software to help me do something. I am looking for a gratis software to help me do something.

Neither sentence sounds right.

The correct way would be

I am looking for free software to help me do something.

Lets apply that for spanish

I am looking for gratis software to help me something.

As you can see, it can be applied perfectly because it means the exact same thing.

If you ask a official translator to translate free, that person will tell you "gratis". If you ask them "doesn't it mean libre"? Then the translator will tell you, "then you mean "be free" instead of "something free".

For your official question, both would mean the same but it is more correct to use free because in a english context, you official use a english word.

What the Free Software Foundation says is irrelevant because they do not control the english language so they cannot change the meaning of a word. They can ADD to it if they want; Google and Android. A android is a robot to resemble a human but Android is also a operating system. Google CANNOT CHANGE the meaning of the word android. It is what it is.

I hope this clears up all the confusion.

  • 1
    Please don't explain English using other languages. People come here to learn English with a wide variety of language backgrounds, not only Spanish, so using a specific language to explain English is not helpful... and you're just generally wrong. As a native AmE speaker, I would never say I'm looking for a gratis software to.... – Catija Mar 9 '15 at 22:07
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    The OP is asking about the English word "gratis" not the Spanish word "gratis." And "gratis" is indeed an ("official") English word, it has been for 300 or 400 years. – user6951 Mar 9 '15 at 23:04

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