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In Malaysia it’s common to see “buy one free one” offers in supermarkets, pharmacies etc. I’m a speaker of British English and this construction hurts my ears, but apparently it’s perfectly idiomatic in Malaysian English. I think it’s understood as “buy one and one is free”, although it could that be “buy” is being used as an adjective (one bought, one free), or that “free” is being used as a verb (buy one, get-free one). What linguistic tests could I use to investigate these possibilities?

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    Tongue-in-cheek: It could also be telling you to buy a free one ;) – Luke Sawczak Mar 16 '20 at 12:50
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    The equivalent in Standard Mandarin: 买一送一 mǎi yī sòng yī follows this exact syntax, although 送 is usually glossed "send". – Michaelyus Mar 19 '20 at 10:30
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    @LukeSawczak If the sign were in an exotic pet shop, I'd take it to mean “If you buy a [rare animal], we'll release one of the same species into the wild.” – Anton Sherwood Mar 24 '20 at 21:05
  • @AntonSherwood It's the best of both worlds for the conscientious environmentalist/collector! – Luke Sawczak Mar 24 '20 at 21:20
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No doubt someone who knows Malay is needed to give a full answer with the likeliest possibilities, but I'll throw in my speculation while we wait.

I would lean towards "buy" as a verb and "free" as an adjective, with an elided "get":

buy one → (get) free one

In the first place, notice that even in the standard English "buy one get one", we need to parse it with at least one elided link between the cause and effect. In fact, to make a full sentence, a lot of elisions are needed:

(If you) buy one (then you will) get (another) one (for free).

The structure in the Malaysian variant could be read similarly as focusing on cause (buy one!) and effect, the latter being reduced to the noun phrase rather than the verb phrase (hey, a free one!).

It wouldn't be unthinkable to drop a verb like "get". Like existence, possession, and equation, it seems to serve more as the glue between themes than a true action, and could behave oddly in different languages.

We'll have to await our Malaysian-speaking linguists to confirm whether this is a valid hypothesis given typical Malay structures!

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    I wrote a paper about that kind of expression in English once, long ago. They're very interesting. They mimic imperatives, but they're really just conditionals. – jlawler Mar 16 '20 at 16:50
  • I like the idea of 'buy one.... (hey, a) free one!' but suspect you're right in saying input is needed from someone who knows the local language. – rchivers Mar 19 '20 at 5:46
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Perhaps counterintuitively, providing more complete information often leads to a more negative interaction, as it requires smaller lettering for the same size sign, may take longer to read, etc.

To me, this looks like a reasonable simplification to convey "buy one, get one free". The sign meaning being understood at least locally the same way in the United States "Drive Thru" means that there is a path and window by which you may order from your vehicle.

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You could employ the empirical Method and *ask a native speaker how they parse it. If all are in agreement about it being odd, stop looking. Otherwise, you have something to go on.

You can brood force an answer by trying all possible syntactical structures and compare to known specimen of each structure from a known good set, be it BrE or better Malayan. A cross reference with Malay syntax wouldn't hurt either. It does sound a bit Vietnamese broken German 'ish to me, at least.

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  • "Brood force"??? The idiomatic BrE expression is BOGOF: "Buy one get one free". – Colin Fine Mar 16 '20 at 20:01
  • There may well be influence from Thai in the far north of the country but the expression is standard even in Kuala Lumpur. The main local language there is Malay and I think Thai would be well behind other minority languages such as Hokkien, Cantonese or Tamil. – rchivers Mar 19 '20 at 5:55
  • @ColinFine I guess (and maybe you do too) that “brood force” is a mondegreen for brute force. – Anton Sherwood Mar 24 '20 at 21:04
  • blame star craft: – vectory Mar 24 '20 at 23:53

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