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Concourse 2

Collocation: essentials


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

To explain.  Some words are primed to occur with other words and the term for this lexical priming as it is called, is collocation.
A key term to understand is synonymy which just refers to the fact that two or more words may have approximately the same meaning such as heavy, weighty and hefty which can all be used to describe a stone.  We can say, too that:
    It's a weighty responsibility
    It's a hefty responsibility

    It's a is heavy responsibility
without changing the sense of the phrase very much.
However, we do not speak of a weighty rain shower or of having a hefty head when we are tired, even though the adjectives carry a very similar meaning.  We can say, therefore, that all three words collocate with the word responsibility but not with the phrase rain shower.

think Task:
Here are some more examples.  Can you fill these gaps with a suitable word?
Click here eye to reveal some comments when you have something in mind for all the gaps.

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

The most obvious problem for learners of the language is the sheer unpredictability of many collocations which, for a native speaker, are ingrained in the memory.  We cannot guess that, for example:
    *heavy fog
    *short face
    *make the washing
    *do the bed
    *lose a train

are all forbidden in favour of dense, long, do, make and miss respectively.

We can, however, help learners to acquire more natural language by making them aware of common collocation from an early stage and that, of course, means that we need to know a bit more about them than our learners.  That's what this short guide is for.


Classification by strength

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


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
    A one-man band
    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.  All those links open in new tabs.
    Idioms which are fixed and into which you cannot insert words or change words while maintaining the same meaning hardly qualify as collocations at all because there is no sense of a constrained selection.
  2. Binomials
    Thunder and lightning
    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
    (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
    Binomials often contain words found in no other contexts.  They, too, because of their fixed and usually unalterable nature, do not really count as collocations.
  3. Weak, medium and strong collocations
    Make a wish
    Strong collocations 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 (often called delexicalised verbs because the meaning comes from the noun, not the verb itself) such as:
    Verb Collocating nouns
    do homework, justice to, an injury, a service, a favour, wrong, the shopping, damage
    get a joke, a job, rid of, married, divorced, old, punishment, arrested
    give explanations, thanks, consideration, thanks, one's word, promises
    go mad, home, away, bad, sour, crazy, on holiday, to work
    have a bath, a shower, lunch, a holiday, a job, a break, a day off, an argument
    make mistakes, haste, a fuss, arrangements, certain, discoveries, fun of, a journey, peace, war, a mess, money, friends
    pay attention, a compliment, your respects
    put aside, a question, an alternative, a suggestion, something in place, together, in prison
    set a task, a clock, a table, something in place, aside, in context, a recorder
    take advantage, notice, pains, root, an offer, an interest, place, offence
    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.
    Weaker, medium-strength collocations are often adjective-noun combinations.  The number of possible adjectives for rain is large but not infinite (heavy, light, drizzly, hard, thin etc.) and excludes adjectives such as strong, powerful etc.
    Very weak collocations are those in which there is a wide range of possibilities.  For example, it is probably not possible to provide a completely exhaustive list of all the words which could fill the gap in:
        He did __________ yesterday.
  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 in the in-service section of this site, linked below.


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.

Word classes Examples
adjective + noun: high wall, tall person, flat landscape, painful toothache etc. but not painful taste or thin road
verb + noun: close a shop / door etc. but turn off a light (See the list above, too.)
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.
We may, incidentally, disagree about some of the matches in that test because concepts of strength vary between people.



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:


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:


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 collocation

Collocations are very helpful for learning vocabulary.  In particular, medium and strong collocations are encountered frequently, can often be used a single chunk, without the need to think too much and make a learner's production seem much more authentic.
Many learners are also very keen to learn idioms in English and, providing we focus on common ones which are usable in many different settings (i.e., avoiding things like raining cats and dogs which nobody uses), they, too, can form part of our teaching.

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              

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


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