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This is a term often contrasted with collocation (to which there is a separate guide on this site).

A definition

A term ... for the process or result of grouping a set of words on the basis of their similarity in entering into syntagmatic grammatical relations.
(Crystal, 2008:86)


An explanation of syntagmatic

Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations

Take the sentence:

  1. He bought a hat.

In this sentence, hat can be replaced by almost any noun but it must be a noun or a noun phrase.  Likewise, bought can be replaced by many verbs but they must be verbs or a verb phrase.  So we can get, e.g.:

  1. He sold a hat.
  2. He bought a car.
  3. He stole a gadget.
Syntagmatic relationship
This describes the relationship between, e.g., He, bought and a hat in Sentence 1, He, sold and a hat in Sentence 2, He, bought and a car in sentence3 and He and stole and a gadget in Sentence 4.
These relationships work horizontally between words.  Subjects use Verbs, Verbs sometimes take Objects, Adjectives modify Nouns, Adverbs modify Verbs and so on.  The relationship is to do with syntax (hence the name).
Paradigmatic relationships
These are exemplified by the changes we have made between the sentences and describe the relationships between:
    bought, sold and stole
    car, gadget and hat
These relationships work vertically in the sense that Noun phrases can be replaced by other Noun phrases, Verb phrases by other Verb phrases, Adjectives by other Adjectives, Adverbs by other Adverbs and so on.  The relationship is to do with word and phrase class.

It all works like this:


The words in each box have paradigmatic relationships to each other.  The red arrows show the syntagmatic relationships.

collocation and colligation

is one type of syntagmatic relationship describing the phenomenon we observe of, e.g., the adjective genuine often being seen in conjunction with a noun like article, painting, excuse, antique etc. but not with money, pen, computer, glass etc.  In the same vein, we close the door but switch off a light.  Some languages will use the same verb for both.
There is a guide to collocation linked in the list of related guides at the end.
describes a different but allied relationship.  Just as an adjective can be, as it were, primed to appear before a particular set of nouns so can a word be primed to enter into certain grammatical relationships.  For example, the verbs allow, permit, forbid, enable are often seen in constructions like:
    I allowed him to go
    Mary permitted him to come
    I forbade him to speak
    The operation enabled him to walk
Where the form is: Subject (often but not always human) + object (often human) + to + verb.
Moreover, the second verb in such structures is usually dynamic rather than stative in use.  Things like:
    I allowed him to understand
    They permitted him to be
are vanishingly rare.
Other verbs which may mean very similar things such as authorise, let, approve, tolerate, consent will not colligate in this way.

Both colligation and collocation are language-specific phenomena.  What collocates in one language may not in another and the same applies to colligation.

Collocational phenomena are sometimes described in terms of what is 'done' and 'not done' in the language so we prefer, for example:
    a wide street
    a broad street
     a narrow street
    a thin street
although we are quite happy with both
    a narrow line
    a thin line.

By the same token, colligation can be described in terms of what is done and not done in the language but the advantage of looking at colligation over collocation is that colligation can be explained and taught on the basis of patterning in the language which follows rules.  That's much harder to do with collocation because that phenomenon seems, superficially at least, random.

Unlike collocation, in which it is possible to identify a range of simple types, adjective + noun, verb + noun, adverb + adjective etc., colligation is a somewhat more slippery concept pedagogically.  Nevertheless, Hoey suggests:

Colligations are particularly important to learners of the language because they explain why it is that a learner may feel he or she knows a word and yet produce a sentence that is grammatical but ‘not English’.
(Hoey 2003)


Examples of colligation

First, a simple test of your colligational competence

How do the verbs authorise, approve and tolerate colligate?
What kinds of subjects do they allow?
Are they transitive?
What kinds (if any) of objects do they allow?

Click here when you have an answer.

The description of the type of subject or object (human vs. inanimate) above is strictly speaking an aspect of collocation, not colligation.  The concepts overlap to some extent but the nature of the subject or object of the verb is rarely mentioned in the context of collocation where the focus is more firmly on meaning and lexical relationships rather than structure.  As we shall see, the nature of the subject and the type of object in clauses is often constrained by both meaning and structural chracteristics.
This goes some way to explaining why a grammatically well formed utterance may not sound English.

There are some other phenomena associated with grammatical function.  We saw above how the verbs allow, permit, forbid and enable colligate.  These verbs frequently come in clauses with this structure:
subject + verb + object (usually animate) + to + verb (dynamic not stative)
so we arrive at

The teacher allowed the children to go home
The boss enabled his staff to have a holday
She forbade him to shop

and so on.  Once the colligational structure of the verbs has been mastered, it is possible to construct an almost infinite number of correct clauses with the verbs.  The nature of the second verb also explains, incidentally, why:
    She forbade him to be old
    He permitted his mother to enjoy Mozart

    It enabled Mary to like ice cream
are not English (i.e., wrong) even though they are, superficially at least, grammatically well formed.  These verbs, and many like them, simply do not colligate with stative uses of other verbs.

As we also saw, the verbs authorise, approve and tolerate although they are connected semantically with allow, permit etc. colligate differently, not in terms of meaning but in terms of the structures with which they occur.  There is no obvious semantic reason that we could not produce:
    They enabled rudeness
but it is still 'not English'.
And, if we can say:
    He allowed me to come
why is
    He approved me to come
not permissible?
The answer is that it contravenes the colligational nature of the verb and not that it is ungrammatical in terms of an overarching structural rule.


issues of transitivity and intransitivity
and conceal

We'll start with a simple example of colligational effects on how things are expressed in English.  This issue is to with transitivity and, as we shall see, so are many others.

  1. I hid it in the cupboard
    I concealed it in the cupboard
  2. I hid behind my father
    *I concealed behind my father

The verb conceal is always transitive, hide can be both.


say, tell, talk and speak

Because colligation varies across languages and translation is perilous, these four verbs cause a good deal of difficulty for learners.  If, however, we look at colligational issues concerning transitivity and the types of objects the verbs allow, much becomes clearer.

is always a transitive verb but the objects it takes are slightly anomalous:
  • we allow direct speech to be the object:
        He said, "Good morning"
  • we allow the description of a communicative function to be the object
        He said good morning
        He said that's different
  • we allow a verb phrase to be nominalised as the object:
        He said that he was leaving today
  • we allow an inanimate noun phrase as the object if it refers to something one can say:
        He said his prayers
        He said it aloud
  • we do not allow an inanimate object if the verb means read aloud:
        *He said the poem
  • we do not allow the verb to take an animate object:
        *He said Mary
        *He said her
  • we do not allow an intransitive use (unless the object is clearly omitted because it is understood):
        *She said
        *I have said
        *Who is saying?
is a verb which can be transitive or intransitive but, again, the objects it takes are anomalous:
  • we allow an inanimate noun phrase as the object only if it refers to words or language:
        He spoke the words
        He spoke German
        I don't speak the language
  • we allow the verb to operate intransitively:
        She spoke loudly to me
        I have spoken
        Will you speak at the meeting?
  • we do not allow an inanimate object if the verb means read aloud:
        *He spoke the poem
  • we do not allow direct speech to be the object:
        *He spoke, "Good morning"
  • we do not allow a verb phrase to be nominalised as the object:
        He spoke that he was leaving today
  • we do not allow the verb to take an animate object:
        *He spoke Mary
        *He spoke her
    and must use a prepositional phrase with to:
        He spoke to Mary
        He spoke to her
is always intransitive
  • we allow only intransitive uses:
        She talked persuasively
        They talked for hours
        Will you talk at the conference?
  • we must use a prepositional phrase to introduce any reference to what the talking was about or to
        He talked to Mary
        They talked about the programme
        They talked in German
  • we allow only a language to appear to be the object of the verb but then it acts as an adverbial rather than the direct object:
        They talked French together
    (meaning in French)
  • we do not allow true transitive use:
        *They talked me
        *They talked the book
        *She talked the meeting
        *She talked the poem
  • we do not allow a verb phrase to be a nominalised object:
        *He talked that he was happy
        *She is talking that she will leave soon
is always transitive and sometimes ditransitive (see below for more)
  • we allow an inanimate noun-phrase object:
        He told a story
        He told a lie
  • we allow ditransitive use with an animate indirect object and a noun-phrase direct object:
        He told the children a story
        She told me the truth
  • we allow ditransitive use with an animate indirect object and a nominalised verb-phrase direct object, usually as reported speech:
        He told her that he was going home
        She told me where she got the book
  • we allow a single direct animate object only if the indirect object (a noun phrase or nominalised verb phrase) is understood:
        She told the police
        They told us
  • we only allow the to-infinitive as a nominalised object in the sense of order:
        They told me to go home
  • we  allow direct speech to be the object:
        He told me, "That's the train you want."
  • we do not allow a nominalised verb-phrase object without an indirect object:
        *She told that she was leaving
        *They told to go away
  • we do not allow an intransitive use (even if the object is clearly omitted because it is understood):
        *She told
        *I have told
        *Who is telling?

In answer to a student's question, this summary is suggested elsewhere:

say speak talk tell summary

The analysis above, with the summary diagram, forms part of an answer to a language question on this site so, if you would like that and more as a PDF document, it is available here.


issues of di- and mono-transitivity
give, pass, hand, offer, lend
and bequeath vs. deliver, donate, hand over, present, contribute, tell and want

If something is a verb, is it transitive, intransitive, ditransitive and so on?  For example:

  1. She gave / passed / handed / offered / lent / bequeathed me the book
    are all possible because the verbs can be ditransitive, working like give
  2. *She presented / delivered / donated / handed over / contributed me the book
    are all prohibited because the verbs are resolutely monotransitive and any indirect object needs to be prepositional as in, e.g.
        She presented me with the book
        She contributed the book to the sale
        She handed over the book to the librarian

  3. Compare:
        Mary wanted him to come to her party
        Mary told him to come to her party

    Superficially, these look like parallel forms but tell is a ditransitive verb and want is monotransitive.  This means that we can have:
        What Mary told him was to come to her party
    but not:
        *What Mary wanted him was to come to her party
        Mary told him something
    but not:
        *Mary wanted him something
        Mary told him that he should come to her party
    but not
        *Mary wanted him that he should come to her party
    To explain this issue we need to look at how the sentences can be broken down.
    Because want is rigidly monotransitive it can only have one object so we can analyse the sentence as:
    Subject Verb Direct object
    Mary wanted him to come to her party
    Mary wanted a birthday present

    The verb tell, on the other hand, can be both mono and di-transitive so we can analyse the sentences like this:
    Subject Verb Indirect object Direct object
    Mary told   a lie
    Mary told him a lie
    Mary told him to come to her party
    Mary told him that he should come to her party
    There is no particular mystery here because clauses such as to come to her party, him to come to her party or that he should come to her party can be nominalised in the usual way and function as the object of a verb.
    The issue is the type of transitivity.

A list of ditransitive verbs is available on this site, linked via the list of related guides at the end.


suggest, recommend, advise

Because of their colligational characteristics, these three verbs cause a good deal of difficulty for learners of English.  There are, naturally semantic differences to get out of the way to start with:

As we shall see, the meanings sometimes determine the grammar the words take.  Colligation is complex:
For example:

We allow:
    The doctor suggested that I give up smoking
    The doctor suggested giving up smoking
    The doctor recommended that I give up smoking
    The doctor recommended giving up smoking
    The doctor advised me to give up smoking
    The doctor advised me that I give up smoking
    The doctor advised giving up smoking

    The doctor advised against smoking
    The doctor advised me against smoking

But we do not allow:
    *The doctor suggested me that I give up smoking
    *The doctor suggested me giving up smoking
    *The doctor suggested to give up smoking
    *The doctor suggested against smoking
    *The doctor recommended me that I give up smoking
    *The doctor recommended me giving up smoking
    *The doctor recommended to give up smoking
    *The doctor recommended against smoking
    *The doctor recommended to give up smoking
    *The doctor advised me giving up smoking

The reasons stem from colligational characteristics of the verbs rather than any overarching grammatical or structural rules of the language.  It works like this:

suggest and recommend


This verb has two connected meanings (it is polysemous) and its colligational features vary with the meanings.

The above also forms the answer to a commonly asked language question so if you want it as a PDF document, it is available here


verbs of sense, perception and mental processes

Certain verbs types describing perception colligate with certain verb forms, in this case -ing forms and bare infinitives.  For example:

  1. I noticed him arriving
    They saw him fall
    Peter heard him singing
    I smelt it burn
    I smelt it burning
  2. I expected he would arrive late
    *I expected him arriving late
    I predicted he would arrive late
    *I predicted him arriving late.
    I hoped he would arrive early
    *I hoped him arriving early.
    I guessed he would arrive early
    *I guessed him arriving early

With the set under 1., the structure is:
Subject (invariably animate) + verb + object + non-finite verb form (bare infinitive or -ing form)
With the set under 2., the structure is:
Subject (invariably animate) + verb + finite clause with would

An oddity in this section is the verb expect which can take the same structure as set 1. but uses the to-infinitive as in, e.g.
I expected him to arrive late


nouns: sentence position

Certain words naturally occur more frequently in certain grammatical slots.
Hoey, op cit., for example, notes that the word consequence very rarely occurs as the object of a clause or a possessive verb so

  1. It produced the consequence that ... and
    It has the consequence that ...
    are rare
    but, as the subject or complement, the word is very much more frequent so expressions such
  2. The consequence was that ... and
    It is a consequence of ...

    are very much more common.

Similar considerations apply to the words preference and use which will occur frequently as objects of clauses and possessive verbs:

  1. He expressed a preference for leaving early
    He explained its use to me
  2. Her preference was to leave early
    They criticised it use as a classroom aid

but are rare as the subject of the verb phrase:

  1. A preference eventually emerged during the meeting
  2. The use was not allowed

both seem unusual to many speakers of English.


probable and likely

  1. It's likely John will help me up
    It's probable John will help me up
  2. John will likely help me up
    *John will probable help me up

In 1., the two words are synonyms with the same grammatical characteristics but in 2., although the meaning is the same, the grammar isn't.  The words colligate differently.
We can't make the subject of the clause be the person identified in both cases but the construction with the dummy it works for both words.


try and attempt

  1. It's hard to move it but please try to
    It's hard to move it but please attempt to

  2. It's hard to move it but please try
    *It's hard to move it but please attempt

The to complement is optional with try but obligatory with attempt.


ought to, should, let and allow

  1. I oughtn't to leave him alone to go
    *I oughtn't leave him alone
  2. I shouldn't leave him alone
    *I shouldn't to leave him alone
  3. I allowed him to stay in the park
    *I allowed him stay in the park
  4. I let him stay
    *I let him to stay

The to complement is obligatory with ought and allow but prohibited with let and should.


stop, cease, finish, complete

  1. It stopped raining
    It ceased raining

  2. It ceased to rain
    *It stopped to rain

cease may be followed by an infinitive or an -ing form but if stop is treated the same way the to is interpretable as in order to.
The verb stop can also be transitive as in, e.g.:
    I stopped the car
but cease cannot be used that way so:
    *I ceased the car
is not available.

The use of the verbs stop, cease and finish is also determined by something called telicity which refers to whether an action is seen as having and end point, and is telic, or not, so is atelic.  For example:

  1. I finished cooking at 5
  2. I ceased cooking at 5
  3. I stopped cooking at 5

In sentence 1. the sense is that the cooking was complete so the verb is telic.
In sentences 2. and 3., however, both verbs imply a temporary end point and suggest that the cooking would be resumed.  In other words, the verb finish is telic and the verbs stop and cease can be atelic.

To complicate matters, the verb complete generally takes a noun object rather than a non-finite verb so we allow, e.g.:
    I completed the cooking at 5
    I completed the meal at 5
    I completed preparing the meal at 5

    ?I completed cooking at 5
is questionable at best.
In all cases, the verb is, like finish, telic.


want and wish

  1. I want to know the truth
    I wish to know the truth

  2. I want the truth revealed
    *I wish the truth revealed

wish does not permit a passive participle so the last sentence could be understood as It's a pity the heater is faulty and won't switch on


sick, poorly and unwell

  1. The child was sick
    The child was poorly
    The child was unwell
    The sick child
    The poorly child

  2. *The unwell child

Otherwise synonymous adjectives may have different characteristics in terms of attributive vs. predicative use.


nearly and almost

  1. I nearly lost my temper
    I almost lost my temper
    I very nearly lost my temper

  2. *I very almost lost my temper

The issue here is choice of modifier: almost cannot be modified with very.


as well, too and also

  1. She does yoga as well
    She does yoga, too
    She does yoga also
    She also does yoga
  2. *She too does yoga
    *She as well does yoga

Some words can have flexible word ordering; others are stricter.


conjunction vs. conjunct

This is not the place to dwell on the differences between a conjunct and a conjunction (for that, see the guide to adverbials linked in the list of related guides at the end).  Briefly, however, there are words which join ideas (coordinate and subordinate) in sentences and these are conjunctions.  Other words, which refer from sentence two back to sentence one and contribute to a strong sense of cohesion are conjuncts.
The grammar of the two word classes is significantly different even though the meanings may be parallel.  Two examples are enough here but you can probably think of a range of other pairs which function similarly:

however and but
The first of these is a conjunct expressing a contrast or an adversative meaning and the second of these is a conjunction expressing a very similar idea so we can have, e.g.:
    I called for you at six.  However, you had already left
    I called for you at six but you had already left
and most people would consider these to express the same meaning.
If we try to swap the words around, we get non-English or a run-on sentence because they colligate differently:
    *I called for you at six however you had already left
    *I called for you at six.  But you had already left.
though and although
The words though and although are often presented to learners as synonyms.  Conceptually, they are but syntactically they are not.  The word though can be a conjunct or a conjunction but although is only a conjunction.  We can accept, therefore:
    The work was done on time.  It was more expensive than I expected, though. (conjunct)
    The work was done on time though it was more expensive than I expected
    The work was done on time although it was more expensive than I expected
but not:
    *The work was done on time.  It was more expensive than I expected, although.


Colligation in the classroom

Here are four implications

  1. Context
    The existence of colligation simply adds even more weight to the need to present lexis in context so that the syntagmatic relationships between the target language, its collocational aspects and its colligational nature can be observed and practised.
  2. Noticing
    Just as it is possible, indeed helpful, to draw learners' attention to collocational patterns in texts, so we can draw their attention to colligational patterns.  Something like this:
        I let him go to the club although his mother had forbidden him to do so because his father always tolerated his visits.
        I gave John the money to pass on to Mary but he lent Peter all of it.  Peter donated it to the household expenses and it was duly delivered to the grocer.
  3. Translation
    In many circumstances, translation between English and the learners' first language(s) is a useful, awareness raising technique and a classroom shortcut.  However, if it is carried out without due understanding of colligational differences between the languages, it can be error inducing.
    For example, I allowed him to go and I let him go can both be translated in German the same way (Ich ließ ihn gehen) but the grammar in English is more complex and misunderstanding may result in *I let him to go or *I allowed him go.
    On the other hand, French handles the two verbs differently (Je lui ai permis d'aller and Je l'ai laissé aller, respectively) and without an understanding of word grammar, this could give rise to I allowed him for going or I let him to go.
    These are just two examples and, as may be imagined, colligational phenomena across languages are even less predictable and parallel than are collocational phenomena.
  4. Dealing with error
    As Hoey points out, colligational error can result in grammatically well formed sentences which are, nevertheless, 'not English'.
    When you are faced with such errors in your learners' production, looking out for the correct colligation in English is often fruitful.

Related guides
collocation for a guide to a related area
adverbials for a guide explaining conjuncts among much else
ditransitive verbs for a list with some notes of ditransitive verbs in English
tenses index for a little more on telicity compared to perfective and imperfective verb uses
verb and clause types for more on transitivity and other features of clause structure

Crystal, D, 2008, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Hoey, M, 2003, What's in a word?, Macmillan, MED Magazine, Issue 10, August 2003