Free Pre-Paid Cremation! DETAILS INSIDE

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Over the last year or so I've received several letters from an admirable organization called the Trident Society with the words "Free Pre-Paid Cremation! DETAILS INSIDE," on the envelope. Ordinarily, I don't open advertising letters, but the third time I got one of these I couldn't resist the urge find out what the writer(s) could mean by these words, which appear to pose a double conundrum. (1) What could a pre-paid cremation contrast with? A post-paid cremation? How would that work? (2) Anyway, if it's free, how can it be paid, pre- or post-? You might want to stop reading for a second and try to guess what's going on.

I'm afraid the answer isn't all that satisfying. Inside there is a card on which the reader can express interest in learning about cremation services. The card also features the announcement: "WIN a pre-paid cremation. Return this completed card today …to be entered … " So I'm invited to participate in a lottery for which the prize is a cremation paid for before my death. I guess I would have been just as happy with a free cremation.

By now, you may be saying , "Oh c'mmon, you know perfectly well what they meant!" Yes, of course, but what I find puzzling about the whole thing is the question of the relative shares of linguistic ineptitude and huckstering flimflam that went into it.


  1. GeorgeW said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    Sometimes I wonder how some of these companies that spend fortunes on TV ads offering "free" services can pay for the ads.

    Presumably, it is the call or estimate that is free. But, clearly, to me at least, the ads are grossly misleading and require a measure of skepticism to avoid being drawn in.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    And here I was hoping I could get a free cremation for someone else. How disappointing!

  3. Yuval said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

    I'm guessing they wanted to avoid implying they want to cremate you immediately…

  4. Ben said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    "Oh c'mmon, you know perfectly well what they meant!"

    It's like the "automatic caution door" signs: I'm a native English speaker and the oddness makes me focus more on the words than on the fact that I should avoid getting whacked by the door. When communication is self-defeating, it is objectively wrong.

  5. Ray Girvan said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    Another baffling offer is the one where hotels advertise "free breakfast". It boils down to your paying the same whether you have breakfast or not – which is equally explicable as your paying for breakfast, but being free to choose not to eat it.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

    @Ray Girvan: That would fit within my concept of 'free,' in this case meaning no extra charge for a supplemental product or service which is often charged for.

  7. Mark Stephenson said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

    Reminds me of "Mathematically annoying advertising".

  8. maidhc said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

    My mother-in-law once suggested we stay at a motel that costs $40 a night more than the one we usually stay in, because they offer a free breakfast.

  9. Bob Lieblich said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 6:10 am

    Lincoln advertises that their hybrid is priced the same as their gas-only model. Which leads me to believe that the gas-only is overpriced. Not exactly what they're going for.

  10. milt boyd said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 7:13 am

    I've always parsed "free X details" as "free details about X"; in this case X may involve real costs.
    I'm often annoyed by announcements about "free downloads of software Y"; they usually turn out to mean there is no charge to download Y, but a charge to use Y or to save the results of using Y. I wonder, what's the point of downloading Y when I can't use Y?

  11. PLL said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 10:24 am

    Trying to analyse the two points of alleged linguistic ineptitude:

    (1) "What could a pre-paid cremation contrast with?"

    This doesn't seem odd at all to me: it contrasts a cremation arranged and paid-for well in advance (probably before the recipient's death) with one booked and paid-for around the time at which it happens. This is surely the dominant usage of pre-paid — meaning not just "paid before delivery", but that payment and delivery are separated to the point of being distinct arrangements/transactions.

    (2) "Anyway, if it's free, how can it be paid, pre- or post-?"

    Here I won't dispute your diagnosis of an error , but I think the point above illuminates how it could have easily arisen. The implications of pre-paid cover not just payment, but arrangement — it's very close to a synonym for pre-booked or pre-arranged. So when the precise meaning desired was more like one of those, it's not surprising that pre-paid came first to the advertisers mind, and didn't stand out as wrong to anyone involved.

  12. David L said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    I recently saw a flyer for an event that advertised "complimentary self-parking" — which I took to mean that not only do they have an empty lot where you have the privilege of parking your own car, but they will let you do this at no charge. Amazing generosity.

  13. Henry Clay said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    I get the joke you're making in (1), but yes, the contrast to a pre-paid cremation is obviously a post-paid cremation: a cremation where the bill will be sent to the estate of the deceased, or to the family or friends who approved and arranged the purchased. This is how most funeral expenses are handled, but pre-arranging and pre-paying funerals is a thriving and obviously useful business. Is anybody seriously confused by this?

    On the other hand, while there is obviously friction between "free" and "pre-paid", I can't think of a reasonable alternative way to convey the meaning of "we sell cremations on a pre-paid basis, but we're giving one or more away free as an advertising gambit." If this is linguistic ineptitude, what would the legitimate version be? Would you have similar objections to giving someone a free pre-paid phone?

  14. Emily said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    Apparently mall vendors (at kiosks selling, for instance, skin care products made from Dead Sea salt) often employ a similar trick: they offer "freebies" with a purchase but their main product is so highly marked up that you're paying the equivalent of normal price for everything.

    As for this junk mail, well, paying for your cremation after the fact might pose some problems…

  15. BZ said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    The way I analyzed it was that the cost of cremation rises, so they are letting you lock down the cost now. The free part is that they're not charging you extra to get this service, but rather all you pay is what one would pay for a cremation today.

    The actual meaning is still not clear. Are you being entered to win a free cremation or a pre-paid one in the sense above?

    Either way, how many people would really want to enter a contest like this?

  16. Katie Heil said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    I'm with Henry Clay on this one. My boyfriend actually used to work as a salesman for the Trident Society, and at the time I assisted him by making phone calls to people who had returned their cards in order to set up appointments for him. (An interesting job… imagine calling people Tuesday afternoon to discuss their impending shuffle off this mortal coil). So as you can imagine, I found it pretty funny that this appeared on Language Log.

    The term "pre-paid cremation" is a set expression which contrasts with the idea of a cremation paid for after one's death. That is, the "pre" is referring both to "paid," and to the subtler implication is "pre-(your death)". So the idea that this is a "free pre-paid cremation" is referring to the fact that one gets a free cremation arranged prior to one's death. I think they would have benefitted greatly from calling it a free "pre-arranged" or "pre-planned" cremation to avoid the confusing contrast of "paid" and "free," but at the end of the day someone has to pay for your free lunch anyway, right?

    It may seem strange to enter in a contest like this, as you said, "BZ," but it's actually quite common to want to pre-arrange for your own funeral as you get older. It saves your family and friends a lot of planning and expenses that would go into your preparations.

  17. Lars said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    Most annoying 'free' misuse to me: Searching for free software and only finding 'free download' sites where you can indeed download programs for free, and install them for free, and run them for free, to find that they won't do anything useful until you pay.

    To be fair most of the download sites tell you if a program is freeware or shareware, before you download it — but I'm still looking forward to Google learning the difference between free downloads and freeware.

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