Free-for-all is a hyphenated idiom. An idiom is a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom free-for-all, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

A free-for-all is a situation in which there are no rules or a chaotic and confusing situation. The idiom free-for-all describes a highly competitive situation or an unregulated situation. The expression free-for-all came into use in the 1870s when it primarily described a horse race or fight. Sometime after the turn of the twentieth century, free-for-all became an adjective that described any chaotic, confusing, or unregulated situation that lacks control. Note that free-for-all is spelled with two hyphens.


For instance, before the pandemic, a baseball clubhouse was a free-for-all — the unwashed media horde would huddle in the middle of the room and one-by-one pick off players at their lockers on the perimeter. (The Mercury News)

“The goal is not to have a free-for-all where people are just sort of converting buildings just at random into reception halls.” (The Alton Telegraph)

Experts, for instance, say California’s regulations have created a chaotic supply chain and a free-for-all on the ground, with illicit suppliers and counterfeit products that have harmed consumers. (The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle)

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