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Concourse 2

Collocation: essentials

chain

What is collocation?

Simply put: the juxtaposition of words with other words with a frequency greater than chance
Another definition is the tendency in all languages for certain words to co-occur

For example, can you fill these gaps with a suitable word?

torrential ______ ______ carriage high ______
air-conditioning ______  ______ and fro towering ______
flock of ______ an open and ______ case the black ______ of the family

Click to reveal some comments when you have something in mind for all the gaps.


strength

Classification by strength

Naturally, some collocations are stronger than others, as we saw above.  The nature of collocation can be illustrated like this:

collocation

Note the overlaps.  There is probably no principled way in which we can always distinguish, e.g., a strong collocation from an idiom or a binomial although it is easy enough to identify examples of one or the other.

  1. Idioms
    These are pretty much fixed and unalterable expressions in a language.
    For example, someone can be described as a one-man band, a jack of all trades, the life and soul of the party etc.  Things can be talked about as the odd one out, a blessing in disguise, chicken feed, a flash in the pan and so on.  There are literally thousands of such expressions in every language which people can deploy almost as if they were single words, saving thinking time and maintaining fluency.  There are a number of exercises in the pages for learners which focus on this type of collocation.  For examples, go to here or here.
  2. Binomials
    These are a special sort of idiom made up of two elements which always appear in the same order.  If they are nouns, they are often used with a singular verb form because they represent a single concept (we say, e.g., supply and demand is the issue not are the issue).
    Examples are: to and fro, thunder and lightning, spic and span, neither here nor there, in and out, cheap and nasty etc.  (There are also some trinomials in English such as left, right and centre, bell, book and candle, cool, calm and collected, hook, line and sinker etc.)
    Binomials often contain words found in no other contexts.
  3. Strong collocations
    These can almost always be predicted by native speakers of a language (or at least have very few alternatives).  For example, if you are asked to fill the gap in the following, your answer is probably quite predictable.
    Please __________ free to ask any questions.
    Many collocations like this occur with general-purpose verbs such as:
    make (mistakes, haste, a fuss, arrangements, certain, discoveries, fun of, a journeys, peace, war, a mess, money, friends)
    do (homework, justice to, an injury, a service, a favour, wrong, the shopping, damage)
    take (advantage, notice, pains, root, an offer, an interest, place, offence)

    pay (attention, a compliment, our respects)
    give (explanations, thanks, consideration, thanks, one's word, promises)
    The point at which strong collocations like these become so predictable and fixed as to qualify as idioms rather than collocations is not at all easy to discern.
    Other strong collocations are adjective-noun combinations.  The number of possible adjectives for rain is large but not infinite (heavy, light, drizzly, hard, thin etc.) and exclude adjectives such as strong, powerful etc.
  4. Textual collocation
    This refers to the tendency for sets of words to occur together in a text on a particular topic.  A text about families will probably include, e.g., home, children, parents, arguments and so on but one about smoking would have cigarette, health, addictive, nicotine, secondary etc.

If you want to know more about idioms and binomials, see the guide to idiomaticity on this site.


classify

Classification by word class

Collocations can also be classified by word class.  This is often a useful way to limit one's focus in the classroom and help learners to identify collocations of a particular sort so they are, for example, only trying to notice particular combinations of words, not all combinations.
At lower levels, the most important combinations are probably adjective + noun and verb + noun as these are very frequent and frequently variable across languages.

adjective + noun: high wall, tall person, flat landscape, painful toothache etc. but not painful taste or tall road
verb + noun: close a shop / door etc. but turn off a light
adverb + adjective: ecstatically happy, deeply depressed but not seriously lighthearted or medicinally interested
noun + noun: flock of sheep, herd of goats but not pride of elephants or ingot of chocolate
verb + adverb: scream loudly, tiptoe noiselessly but not scream swiftly or tiptoe violently
verb + prepositional phrase: swing to and fro, descend into misery, explode with anger but not handle with indifference or explode with tears

You can test yourself to make sure you can recognise stronger and weaker collocation of these six types by clicking here.

balanced

Inequality

Collocation does not work equally in both directions.  For example:

The number of nouns which can combine with the adjective heavy is huge and will include:
    weight, car, man, breathing, metal, plate, computer, stone, table, brick, key, ashtray
and almost every other noun which is not in itself associated with something light, such as feather or bubble.  The number of possible nouns runs into many thousands.
However, if we take any of these nouns, it is easy to see that the number of adjectives which can be used to modify them is much smaller than the number of nouns which can be modified by heavy.
For example, the noun rain can be modified by heavy but it is clear that the number of other adjectives we can use with this noun is limited and it is almost possible to produce a complete list confined to:

abundant
acid
blessed
ceaseless
chill
chilly
cold
constant
continual
continuous
cool
copious
driving
drizzly
endless
excessive
fine
frequent
gentle
grey
hard
icy
incessant
intermittent
light
misty
moderate
occasional
perpetual
persistent
plentiful
refreshing
relentless
soft
steady
sudden
thin
torrential
tropical
warm

You may be able to think of a few others but the list is clearly not anything like as long as the list of nouns which can be described as heavy.
Equally, as we saw above, the adjective torrential can only be used with a small number of nouns and it is possible to come up with a list of fifteen:

cloudburst
current
deluge
downpour
flood
monsoon
rain
rainstorm
rapids
river
shower
storm
stream
thunderstorm
waterfall

and it is quite possible that not all native speakers of English would accept all those as natural combinations.

Other sorts of collocation work the same way so, for example, the list of nouns which can be the object of the verb make is very long but the list of verbs which can use bed as the object is very much shorter.

There is a classroom implication that we need to focus on collocations which are limited, not on those which are so numerous that they can't be taught.


teaching

Teaching collocation

Collocations are very helpful for learning vocabulary.  There are some things to consider:

helping learners to notice collocation
It is unusual to find any kind of reading text which doesn't contain some obvious collocations so make sure you focus on them at some time in a reading lesson.  Eventually, your students should be able to spot them for themselves.  Highlighting likely collocations in texts is effective.
A small trick is to design a short text in which the collocations are wrong and get learners a) to notice them and b) to correct them.  At higher levels, this can make an interesting change to a dictation.  You dictate the text with the false collocations and the learners correct it as they go along.
teaching vocabulary thoroughly
Whenever you teach a new verb, remember to set it in a context of what sort of nouns it collocates with.  For example, if you teach unearth try make sure that your learners know what sorts of things can be unearthed – the truth, a body, an artefact, evidence etc.  If you teach a new adjective, treat it similarly and make sure your learners know what sorts of things it describes, for example, greedy applies to animate things, mostly, but you can have a greedy bank.
focusing some lessons on collocation
This is such a useful area that it is worth making it part of your usual teaching programme.  It is worth considering, for example, basing a lesson around notions such as size, weight, length, temperature and so on so that you can focus the learners on such things as tall building, high wall, narrow street, heavy load, scorching sunshine, bitterly cold, extensive grounds, crushing weight etc.  This may help your learners avoid saying things like thin street, flimsy load, boiling sunshine, severely cold or grave weight.
being clear
If you are a native speaker of English in particular, you may often feel that a collocation such as shuddering with fear or burying an argument is conceivable (and they both are) but your students want clear answers and access to more natural collocations so, unless they are very advanced, stick to the clichés – we shiver or tremble with fear, resolve arguments and bury hatchets.

Here are some examples of exercise types you could use in collocation teaching

Odd-one out:

Adjective – Noun Tall – person, mountain, tree, wall?
Torrential – rain, water, river, downpour, snow?
Rain – gentle, heavy, strong, hard, tough?
Problem – large, strong, difficult, big, heavy?
Verb – Noun Make / Do – homework, money, a mistake, an effort?
Catch – cold, meaning, idea, bus, lift?
Path – wind, turn, twist, coil, spiral, twirl?
Wage – pay, earn, settle, gain, give, achieve?

Word grids.  Students work with dictionaries and/or a text to put a X in the right boxes:

  frozen food your heart out relationships into tears sugar ice chocolate
thaw X              
melt                
dissolve                

Matchers.  Students draw the lines and end up with something like this:

matcher

Gap fills.  Students work together to see what can naturally go in the gaps:

We …………… the …………… path up the mountain until we …………… the summit.
The view was quite …………… and we …………… for over an hour just …………… it.

Selections.  Students choose the right collocations:

The tasteless / foul / bright hotel was in a dirty / unclean / polluted alley.
The receptionist was so abusive / cruel / spiteful that we felt undesirable / unwelcome / objectionable from the outset.



Related guides
exercise index for some exercises to do with collocation for learners
collocation for a much more detailed guide to the area in the in-service section
idiomaticity If you want to know more about idioms and binomials