Free one what, exactly?

I’m sitting here thinking about the last time I was out and about. Shopping, that is. I realize I’m talking ancient history here. So yup, it’s been ages since I saw a sign like this which so often irked me in the past, and still does.

Free one what, exactly?

Sure, everybody loves a good bargain and I’m no different. But can we please get the wording right? Seriously, this kind of glaring grammatical error makes me grit my teeth and go grrrr!! Buy two, free one? Or as is more often the case, buy one, free one what, exactly?😒

Okay, so let’s dissect this phrase and see what’s gone wrong here. One look and we immediately notice the parallel structure. The first word ‘buy’ is clearly a verb. The second part of the structure though starts with the word ‘free’ which could be either an adjective, an adverb or a verb. In a parallel structure, if the first part starts with a verb, i.e. ‘buy’ in this case, then the subsequent part(s) must also start with a verb which, in this case, would be ‘free’.

This being the case, the problem is that if the word ‘free’ were to be used as a verb here, then its meaning would be ‘to release’, or ‘to let loose’. Put another way, this phrase is now literally saying ‘buy one, release one’ – release one what? It makes no sense!! Buy one item, and free one elephant in captivity? Buy one item, and free one trapped rodent?😟🤷 Can you see the problem here?

Clearly ‘buy one, free one’ is a literal translation from some other language(s). So it’s unlikely much, if any, thought was given to its grammatical correctness in the first place. So here, for the parallel structure to work, the word ‘free’ must function as a verb, not as an adverb or an adjective, in order to line up with the preceding verb ‘buy’. So if the word ‘free’ is intended to mean ‘at no charge’, it would be an adverb. And of course, that won’t work, not in English anyways.

The correct phrase should then be ‘buy one, get one free’. ‘Buy’ and ‘get’ are both verbs, so they line up perfectly in parallel. And ‘free’ can remain an adverb, and everything will work out fine. Then the phrase would simply mean what it’s supposed to – that when the customer buys one item, they will get another item at no charge. Simple, right? Okay, glad I got that out of the way🙄!

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