learn it! title
'Sugarfree' or 'sugarless'? When to add 'less' and when to add '-free' to form an adjective
sugar pot
Izida Mladenova from Bulgaria asks:

I find it a great idea to help people with their English via the Internet. So my question is: What's the difference (if any) between the adjectives ending in -less and in -free (Is the chewing gum 'sugarless' or 'sugarfree'?)
Roger replies:
In your particular example, chewing gum, breakfast cereal, or food in general can often be described as 'sugarless' or 'sugarfree'. Whenever you form the adjective by adding the suffix -less or -free, you are describing something as not having or not affected by the thing mentioned. But I can only think of one other example (although there must be more) where they can be used quite interchangeably in this way, as in:
  • 'This piece of work was quite error-free. It was an errorless piece of work.'
Normally, usage prescribes one OR the other. In the following examples, only one is possible. Test your knowledge by using either less or -free in each example. Check your answers with those below.
  1. There are many home people sleeping rough on the streets of London.
  2. The whole journey was trouble and we arrived at our destination on time.
  3. There were so many duty goods in the airport shop that we just don't know where to begin.
  4. It was a completely meaning exercise and they made no progress in their work.
  5. When there is never any opportunity of being released, prisoners are power
  6. The operating theatre was completely germ environment.
  7. Some of the runners tired very quickly, but others among them appeared quite tire
  8. It is doubt the case that this prisoner will be extradited.




homeless people
trouble-free journey
duty-free goods
meaningless exercise
powerless prisoners
germ-free environment
tireless runners
doubtless the case

Note that the suffix 'less' or '-free' is normally added to nouns to form the adjective. In the penultimate example, it is added to the verb 'tire' and in the final example, 'doubt' can be viewed as either noun or verb.

What about 'careless' and 'carefree' you might ask. These are both possible. Indeed they are, but note that they are not alternatives. They are quite different in meaning. A 'careless person' is someone who does not take very much care over what he is doing, whereas a 'carefree person' is someone who has no worries.

You will have noticed that the suffix '-free' is usually hyphenated and is a stressed syllable (unlike 'less'). However, in two of the above examples, 'sugarfree' and 'carefree', there is normally no hyphen, at least in the examples I have seen.