LINGUIST List 7.216

Sat Feb 10 1996

Sum: Something for nothing

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1., You cannot get something for nothing.

Message 1: You cannot get something for nothing.

Date: Fri, 09 Feb 1996 13:54:16 +0200
From: <>
Subject: You cannot get something for nothing.
Dear Linguists,
 I posted a query a few weeks ago. To my surprise, I received as many
as 59 responses. All of the did eagerly answer my student's naive
question. I wish to thank to all of you who kindly e-mailed me. The
followings are my original query and the respondants, and of course my

My posting:
> I had a question from one of my students about the proverb
>"You cannot get something for nothing." The question has three parts.
>(i) Is this proverb frequently used in US and England? Have you ever
>heard or used it?
>(ii) Is this proverb's real meaning "Getting something for nothing
>is the most expensive"?
>(iii) Does this proverb have a semantic structure "It is NOT that we can
>get something for nothing"?
>I am looking forward to your comment, which I hope is an easy explanation.
>Please e-mail me directly. I will post a summary soon. Thanks in advance.

The contributors:
"Mr. Magoo" <>
Chuah Choy Kim <> (Michael K. Launer)
"Prof. Tracey Leffin-Hedrick" <>
"David Weiss" <>
Michael Wescoat <>
George Wilson <>
Bowen Hui <>
David Harris <> (E. Wayles Browne)$B!J(JBarbara Pearson$B!K(J
Rebecca Larche Moreton <>
"David Weiss" <> (Thomas W. Adams)
"Andrew S Mccullough" <> (Budd Scott)
"D.A. Good" <> (ml shapley)
Peter Daniels <>
Patrick Griffiths <> (Anthea Fraser Gupta)
John Lawler <>
lisa Cunningham <>
Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Paula Miller Jacobson <>
Deborah Milam Berkley <>
David Baker <> (Anton Sherwood) (anna livia)
"Jack Wiedrick" <WIED6480VARNEY.IDBSU.EDU> Pennock)
Deborah Yeager <> (Calmer Clifford) (Dr. Dennis G.Holt) (Dale Russell)
B R Maylor <>
Gregory Roberts <>
David Moore <>
"Marge Jackman" <>
Robert Lyle Good <>
Joseph F Foster <>
Peter Gingiss <petergBayou.UH.EDU>
"Marie Egan" <> Kirchner)
David Tugwell <>
Patrick Juola <>
"Larry Trask" <>
"Philip L. Peterson" <>
"Donald F. Pendergast" <> (Cathryn Donohue) (Leslie Oberman) ( =?iso-8859-1?Q?J=E9?= Goolsby)
James Warren Cornish <>
M J Hardman <>

 As regards with my query (i), all of the respondants answered that this
expression is fequently used in the US and the UK, although some say it
is questionable that we should call this expression as proverb, instead
we may as well call it "saying". I don't have any clue to solve this

 To (ii), most peole consider my paraphrase is wrong. My paraphrase,
"Getting something for nothing is the most expensive," corresponds to a
Japanese proverb,
 "cheap-thing-OBJ buy-NOM of(equals)-TOP money lose-NOM"
as was suggested by my supervisor in my graduate school days, which
literally means, "If you buy a cheap thing, you will lose your money."
 This expression is simliar to or alomst the same as "There is no such
thing as a free lunch.", often abbreviated as TINSTAAFL or TANSTAAFL
from "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"(Tracey Leffin-Hedrick
and Patrick Juola). Most interestingly, some people read it literally
like Leslie Oberman "if you require money, you have to work at a job. No
one will give you anything unless you pay for it." and the others read
it figuratiely or implicationally like Anna Livia's re-wording, "Even
when someone seems to be offering you something without asking anything
in return (i.e. giving you something for nothing) it always turns out
that they want you to do something for them." These are subtle diffe-
rences, but understanding a simple expression like this proverb/saying
or whatever you call it requires a process from literal to figurative/
implicational. Simlilar expressions include "No pain, no gain.", "You
get what you pay for.", and Patrick Griffiths and Barry Pennock cite
from the Yorkshire Dialect form, "You don't get owt for nowt. (OWT =
'something/anything'; NOWT = 'nothing').", or "See all, hear all, say
nowt (nothing)", "Eat all, sup (drink) all, pay nowt.", and "if you ever
do owt for nowt, do it for yourself.", which are a cynical but
realistic way of looking at things in Yorkshire(Barry Pennock). Other
expressions are "There ain't no free lunch", "You get what you pay for."
and "There is no santa claus.", "Everything has a price.", and "Nothing
is free.", etc.

 As regards with (iii), some peole say that most English speakers would
not consider this expression a double negative. "Nothing" is only
incorporated into a prepositional phrase, i.e., phrase/word negation as
opposed to sentence negation, and the negation in "cannot" doesn't
extend to/have scope over the "nothing". The term "double negation"
might have caused a confusion. I used it just because there are two
negatives in one sentence. This may as well be called a partial negation.
Or as John Lawler writes, the semantic(or logical) structure of the
sentence in question may be something like:
 (Ax) (NOT (Ey) (POSSIBLE (FREE y [for] x)))
 "For every x, there does NOT exist y which can be FREE"
 (My translation. Am I right, Dr. Lawler?).
I presume that this logical and semantic structure shows the sentence is
 doubly negated.

 Thank you very much to all those who respond immediately. Your
answers and comments (if brief) are all of great help to my students
and me. Please allow me if I fail to write your name on the list.

Best wishes,

Hiroaki Tanaka, Tokushima University, Japan
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