Submitted by devind on June 28, 2010

Oh it’s... “Free”?

While on vacation during the first week of summer, I came across an advertisement for the H1N1 Vaccine on the back of a coach bus. It stated “Get your ‘free’ H1N1 vaccine today!”

This begs the question, does putting quotation marks around “Free” (but not as a quotation, of course) serve any function or purpose? Such as:

All these hot dogs are “free”.


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The hot dogs were free, as in a third party could take them but they weren't free to produce. Same with the H1N1 vaccine. Unless the hot dogs or vaccine appeared out of the air, then they aren't literally free.

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Often, putting a single word in quotes in this manner expresses doubt or irony. A free vacation is one that costs you nothing. A "free" vacation is one that includes extra "processing fees", etc., perhaps hidden in the fine print.

Sometimes quotes are used simply for emphasis. This usage is non-standard and considered by many to be incorrect as it can be easily confused for irony or sarcasm, sometimes with humorous results. Using italics, boldface, etc., is preferred.

For a good presentation on various uses of "out of place" quotation marks, see:

especially the paragraphs on irony, signaling unusual usage, use-mention distinction, and emphasis (incorrect usage).

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<a href="" rel="nofollow">There is a popular blog entirely devoted to this issue.</a>

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The use of quotes for emphasis is nonstandard, and frowned upon. But it's quite common on handwritten ads. As such, they're known as "grocers' quotes."

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I agree with those who posted that the quotation marks were for emphasis, I also wonder if in some cases it is not free; sometimes things like vaccinations are free to certain groups and there are strings attached to the general offer.

BTW, I would suggest that you don't use the expression 'begs the question' on a grammar forum, see

Simple phrases like 'It makes me wonder...' or 'It raises the question...' can assist in avoiding this contentious phrase.

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