My friend nears the end of his time in prison. Finally. He is scheduled to be set free in 2019. Try to imagine how that feels. For the first time in 27 years, he will be free to move about, join his wife on the outside, make his own choices about his meals, his travels, his daily routine, his life.
Free. It’s such a happy word in our language. Something without cost is free. We don’t pay for it. Our grocery store regularly offers special deals on some popular items. “Buy one, get one free.” A good deal. Occasionally, it’s even more generous: “Buy two, get three free,” The offer does not state “FOR free.” Why not? Because “free” can’t be an object of a preposition, such as “for.” Not in proper English.
Free, the word, can be an adjective or a verb but not a noun. Free is not an amount. Some examples of free used as an adjective: free kick, free fall, free speech, free trade, we will give you a free cup of coffee if you fill out this survey. Examples of free used as a verb: free my foot, please. It’s caught under this tree root. Free Willy. Free the slaves. Free me from this relationship.
In slang, we misuse free by turning it into a noun to represent a specific amount meaning zero. I will give you this for free. Wrong. The cup of coffee costs $4, but if we fill out the merchant’s survey as requested, that cup of coffee is free, meaning its cost to us is zero. But free is not an amount. In this context, it is an adjective: a free cup of coffee, rather than a $4 cup of coffee.
Of course, we all are free (adjective, in this instance, modifying we) to make our own rules and misuse our language. It’s a free country, after all.