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There is an essential and simpler guide to collocation in the initial plus section of this site (new tab).

This is quite a long guide so here's a contents list.  If this area is new to you, however, you'd be well advised to read through the guide in the order in which it is set out.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

Definitions Choice and constraint Grammatical vs. lexical collocation Classification by strength
Classification by word class Six key concepts: reciprocity separation
randomness and presupposition register style naturalness
Considering meaning Six types of lexical collocation Semantic prosody Teaching collocation



A common enough definition is from Lewis:

Collocations are those combinations of words which occur naturally with greater than random frequency
Lewis, 2008: 25

This simple definition hides a good deal of complexity.  We need to understand what is meant by

  1. combinations of words
  2. naturally
  3. greater than random

and we will tackle these one by one later.

Here are a few examples for you to get a feel for collocations.  What goes in the gaps?
Click eyehere when you have filled the gaps in your head.

Row 1 torrential ______ ______ carriage high ______
Row 2 air-conditioning ______ ______ and fro towering ______
Row 3 flock of ______ an open and ______ case the black ______ of the family
Row 4 significant ______ gas ______ ______ paper



Choices and constraints

If you have followed the guide to lexical relationships, you will be aware of the meaning of syntagmatic rather than a paradigmatic relationships in language.  Briefly:

Syntagmatic relationships
refer to syntax in a sentence.  For example, in this sentence:
    The man selected a tie
we have a subject noun phrase, a verb and another noun object phrase.
The relationships between the three phrases are determined, in all languages, by the grammar of a well-formed sentence so, while we can replace a noun phrase with another and a verb phrase with another to get, for example:
    The woman selected a tie
    The man selected a jacket
    The man threw away a tie
we cannot replace on a non like-for-like basis and have
    *The woman the man a tie
    *The man selected threw away
Syntagmatic relationships work horizontally along clauses.
Paradigmatic relationships
work vertically and refer to the fact that The man, The woman, selected, threw away, a jacket and a tie all perform a specific grammatical function and can be replaced ad infinitum with any similarly functioning phrase.  The resulting sentence may be nonsense but it will be grammatically correct so we can have:
    The ostrich selected a fencepost
    The spaceship chose a tie

and any number of other perfectly grammatical sentences.

The summary is:

Each slot in a clause can be replaced by words and phrases in the same word class to make new clauses (some of which might make sense) ad infinitum.  The boxes relate to items in a paradigmatic relationship with each other and the black arrows show the syntagmatic relationships.

Collocation concerns both types of relationships:

  1. Collocation is a syntagmatic phenomenon insofar as it concerns which sorts of items are more or less likely to co-occur horizontally in a clause.  For example, it is more likely that the verb select will co-occur with an animate subject so we will not usually encounter:
        The tree selected
        The car selected
    but any animate subject is possible so
        The child selected
        I selected
        The committee selected
        The horse selected

    and so on are all imaginable.
  2. Collocation is a paradigmatic phenomenon insofar as it is centrally concerned not with what is possible but with what is likely, conventional and non-random in terms of which items are likely to fill the slots.

The choice principle: what or which?

In summary:

works on an open-choice principle .  The only constraint is word / phrase class, i.e., the paradigmatic relationships between elements performing the same grammatical function (verbs, nouns, adverbs, determiners etc.).  Whether a sentence is well formed or not merely depends on the ordering of the items which make up a clause.
We can look at any clause in any language and ask:
    What substitutions can we make?
because the choice is virtually open ended.
is a powerful syntagmatic constraint on making language because it is concerned not with free choice but with limitations on meaning and what is appropriate and acceptable semantically.  I.e., the issue is one of closed choices and how wide the choices are is determined by collocational strength.
We can look at a clause in this respect and ask:
    Which substitutions can we make?
because the choice is now restricted.


Exclusion is a key concept within collocation.

Some words collocate so freely that almost no combination is excluded.  For example, the determiner some will collocate with any plural count noun and any mass noun at all so there is almost no way to predict with which nouns it is most likely to co-occur.  For the purposes of analysis, this lack of exclusivity means that it makes no sense to refer to the collocational characteristics of a word like some.

Other words are far less flexible and some almost completely inflexible so, for example, although the adjective good is promiscuous in the nouns which it can be used to describe it is not fully so.  We are unlikely to encounter, e.g.:
    a good problem
    a good drawback

etc. because the adjective is semantically constrained to exclude many negative-connotation nouns.  Not all, however, because:
    a good thunderstorm
    a good accident

are conceivable if ironic in most circumstances.

The phenomenon we are describing, which we will encounter frequently in what follows is semantic exclusion.  It is a meaning issue.

Other words are very exclusive and are severely constrained in terms of co-occurrence.  For example, the word pay collocates quite frequently with a range of nouns (bills, invoices, the money, attention, the price, dividends etc.).
However, the noun attention, which collocates with pay in, e.g.:
    Please pay more attention
has a much more constraining effect on the verbs of which it can be the object and they are confined almost to pay and give.  What's more, none of the synonyms of pay and give can be used with the noun attention and only heed appears to be a synonym of attention which can also be the object of pay, as in:
    Please pay more heed
Furthermore, although the verb pay also has a range of near synonyms, foot, settle, disburse, give, shell out etc., only some of these can refer to the same noun:
    pay / settle / foot the bill
    pay / settle the invoice
    pay / disburse / give / shell out the money
    give / shell out his pocket money

are all acceptable but
    *give / shell out / disburse the bill / the invoice
are not and we can only have:
    foot the bill
and not
    *foot the invoice

In our examples, the verb pay and the noun attention collocate strongly in one direction (noun to verb), but the same is not true for collocations in the other direction (verb to noun) which are much less exclusive.  There is, in the jargon, asymmetric reciprocity which is explained a little more fully later.



Grammatical and Lexical collocation

Most authorities will agree that there are two forms of collocation to consider: grammatical and lexical.

Grammatical collocation
refers to what is analysed elsewhere on this site as colligation, to which there is a guide linked in the list at the end.
The principle is that some words are, as it were, primed grammatically to appear in certain grammatical structures.
For example:
The verb differentiate and the noun difference are grammatically primed to take the preposition between
    We need to differentiate between the different sorts of figures
    What's the difference between the houses?

The adjective interested is grammatically primed for the preposition in (plus an -ing form in the case of verb complementation)
    She's not very interested in hockey
    I'm interested in seeing the film
The noun pleasure is grammatically primed to take a to-infinitive
    It's a pleasure to see you
The verb promise is grammatically primed to take either a to-infinitive or a that clause
    I promised to help
    I promised that I would help

The noun accident is grammatically primed to be preceded by the preposition by
    It was done by accident
and so on.
Some authors will place all prepositional, phrasal and phrasal-prepositional verbs into this category.
This form of collocation will not be further analysed here.  For more, see the guides to colligation and multi-word verbs linked in the list of related guides at the end.
Lexical collocation
is a more equal form of partnership in which both words contribute to the meaning of the phrase.
For example:
Noun + Verb
    The bomb exploded
Verb + Noun
    She lost patience
Adjective + noun
    a stinging insect
This is the form of collocation which is considered in this guide.

A simple way to remember this difference is to see that combinations which include function words are grammatical and those between content words are lexical.
In English, the content words are open-class items (i.e., ones to which new additions are possible if not frequent) and involve nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs.
Functional (or structural words) are closed-class items (i.e. ones to which new additions are very rare if not impossible) and involve prepositions, determiners, conjunctions and pronouns.

Any combination of two or more lexical words is lexical collocation
Any combination which includes functional words is grammatical collocation

In this site, the latter is referred to as colligation and analysed elsewhere (see the link below).



Classification by strength

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


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
    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 is a guide to idiomaticity, linked at the end, where more detail is to be had.
    The important thing about this kind of collocation is its noncompositionality, i.e., the whole phrase has to be understood as a single item and cannot be broken down into its constituent parts to get at the meaning.
  2. Binomials and invariable collocations
    Binomials 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).
    Binomials often contain words found in no other contexts.  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
    A small subset in this category comprises invariable collocations in which only one combination is usually possible in only one order such as:
        from top to bottom
        back to front
        duck a question
        stage a play
    This kind of collocation is sometimes referred to as Siamese twins.  The elements are, in other words, both inseparable and unalterable in the way that other, weaker collocations are not.
    Many of these types of strong collocation (and others) are used figuratively as well as literally so, for example:
        hook, line and sinker
    refers to fishing tackle
    but in
        She swallowed the story hook, line and sinker
    it is used figuratively to suggest that someone was completely gulled into believing something untrue.
    These are called duplex expressions and there is more on them below under meaning and in the guide to idiomaticity on this site, linked below.
    For example:
        His speech was short and sweet
        It was something I could not aid and abet
        Foreign and domestic policies are being reconsidered
        It's a rough and ready rule
    In the legal profession, there are many more of these and they include, for example:
        heirs and successors
        assault and battery
        expressed or implied
        fit and proper
    and many others.
  3. Strong collocations
    These can almost always be predicted by native speakers of a language (or at least have very few alternatives).  Typically they allow a choice of words but at only one point in the phrase or clause.  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.
    Some of these collocations allow a choice at two points in the clause or phrase.  For example:
    swat / squash a fly / wasp / bug
    cook / prepare / make a meal / dinner / food / some grub
    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.
    Some authors will place all phrasal, prepositional and phrasal-prepositional verbs in the category of grammatical collocation.  On this site, they are considered separately.
  4. Delexicalised verbs
    When verbs are involved in these invariable collocations they are often describable as delexicalised because they take their meaning from the noun with which they collocate rather than having an explicit meaning in themselves.  Other examples of delexicalised verbs (or verbs which can be described as such in certain environments) are:
    do | have | get | go | make | put | set | take
    For example:
        do the washing up
        have a shower
        get a letter
        go by car
        make a cake
        make the beds
        put a question
        set a trap
        take / make a decision

        throw a party / fit / tantrum
    in all of which it is the noun which contributes more to meaning than the verb.  These general-purpose verbs combine with certain nouns only to produce memorable lexical chunks which native and skilful non-native speakers deploy almost as single lexemes, although adverbials and adjectives may be inserted and tense and voice changed to suit the speaker / writer's intentions.  For example:
    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
    throw a fit, a party, a tantrum, a wobbly
    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.
    It is also the case that while the choice of make or do to combine with, e.g., the cooking or the dinner seems almost random, other verbs, such as give, take and set do contribute some meaning to the clause although it is still very difficult to guess which one forms the appropriate collocation.
    If you would like a list of verbs which may be considered delexicalised or, at least, semi-delexicalised click here.
    There is also a lesson for B1 / B2-level learners on delexicalised verbs here (new tabs).
  5. Prime verbs
    An allied concept is that of what are known as a language's prime verbs.  In English, these are
    be | bring | come | do | get | give | go | keep | make | put | take
    Besides the delexicalised nature of many of these verbs in certain collocations, they are also the verbs which are basic to most idiomatic language and which often take the place of more formal or synthetic verbs.  So, for example:
    We can render ... ... as this with a prime verb
    He appeared suddenly He was suddenly there
    They have raised four children They have brought up four children
    He attended the meeting He came to the meeting
    I executed her instructions I did as she told me
    I arrived at the hotel late I got to the hotel late
    I handed in my essay I gave my essay in
    He travelled to New York He went to New York
    Please retain the receipt Please keep the receipt
    I prepared dinner I made dinner
    She garaged the car She put the car in the garage
    I caught the train I took the train
    There are, in fact, very few verbal concepts in English which cannot be rendered less formally and more simply by using one of the prime verbs in combinations with adverbials.
  6. 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

If you want to know more about idioms and binomials, see the guide to idiomaticity on this site, linked at the end.
If you want to know more about delexicalisation, see the guide to the lexical approach also linked at the end.



Lexical collocation: classification by word class

The citation from Lewis included the phrase: combinations of words and it is time to address what sorts of combinations we can focus on for analysis.

Lexical collocations can 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.

The six areas we shall look at are:

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.

Many combinations are excluded for semantic reasons so, for example, we cannot have:
    *short giant
    *distinguish similarity
    *deafeningly quiet
    *window wood
    *clarify obscurely
    *ascend down the valley

and none of these should cause any difficulty because semantic exclusion of this sort is common across all languages (and common sense).


Six key concepts:
reciprocity, separation, randomness, register, style and naturalness

Before we can get on to analysing the six types of lexical collocations identified above, we need to consider some key concepts and return to our definition of collocation.

give and take


give and take  

The relationships between collocating lexemes is often unequal.  There is, in other words, asymmetrical reciprocity.  For example, the noun interest collocates with a wide range of adjectives such as:
    great interest
    keen interest
    obvious interest
    sudden interest
    academic interest
    personal interest
    public interest
    special interest
    romantic interest

and hundreds of other adjectives including:
    vested interest
The adjective vested, however, only collocates with the noun interest and has no other combination in general English, although in legal and economic registers we may encounter the technical uses of the terms vested property and vested authority.
(We are leaving aside the term vested to mean wearing a vest, by the way.)
Once we have used the term vested, we have almost no choice at all but to follow it with the noun interest.  However, when we use the noun interest, we are not constrained in anything like the same way in our selection of an appropriate adjective to modify it.
That is what is meant by asymmetrical reciprocity: collocation does not work equally in both directions.
The key is to identify what is sometimes referred to as the pivotal element in the collocation, i.e., the element which is the determining factor limiting the range of possibilities for the other element.
Here are some more examples:

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.  The list of possible adjectives would be much shorter in cases such as computer, ashtray, breathing etc.
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 such as:


and it is quite possible that not all native speakers of English would accept all those as natural combinations.  Given that there are probably around 70,000 nouns in English, this means that the adjective torrential collocates with only 0.02% of them.  In other words, if you try to use the word randomly to modify any noun you come across, you have a 99.98% chance of being wrong.

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 have bed as the object is very much shorter.
The verb babble is also a pivotal or constraining element as is its derived participle adjective babbling and, apart from babies and streams, brooks, becks and rivulets it collocates with very few nouns naturally even though its meaning (to talk rapidly and incomprehensibly) is common enough and could be applied to many types of people and noise-producing objects.  Native speakers might or might not accept
    babbling tourists
    babbling foreigners
    babbling gossips
    babbling people

etc. as natural combinations.

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.
Hence, the focus on exclusion at the beginning of this guide.



give and take  

Collocation may be described as the study of how lexemes conventionally co-occur (are combinations in Lewis's definition) but that does not necessarily mean that they must be juxtaposed.  For example, we may have:
    the dense fog
in which the words are juxtaposed, or
    the fog was / became / looked dense
in which the collocating noun and adjective are separated only by the copulas be, become or look, but we could also have:
    the fog which rolled down the mountain that morning grew increasingly dense
in which the collocates are separated by nine other words.
This is clearly a teaching issue because learners may not be able easily to spot the collocating items in the following unless they are highlighted in some way, as they are here with one example of each of the six main types of lexical collocation:


Randomness: grammar and presupposition

equal probability  

The citation from Lewis at the beginning included the expression: with greater than random frequency.

Language, however, is a non-random phenomenon.  It is not the case that one language lexeme may be followed by any other with absolutely equal, i.e., random, probability because language is a rule-based system.

The Oxford English Dictionaries website states that:

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use ... Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes etc. And these figures don't take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

If we assume, therefore, that we have around 85,000 nouns which could conceivably be the subjects of around 25,000 verbs, the number of possible combinations of noun + verb is well over 2 billion.  The number of possible adjective + noun combinations would be over 3.5 billion.
This is clearly not a tenable conclusion and most combinations of words are, in fact, excluded for one of two main reasons.

For example, if a clause begins:
    Because she ...
it cannot be completed with just any item in the language because the choices are constrained by the grammar and the meaning systems.

  1. Grammar
    because the word cannot, for example, be followed by opening, difficult, so, in the garden, familiar with, all, were or house because there are word-class and other structural constraints which follow from the rules of English grammar.  In fact, because neither a noun nor an adjective can come next, something like 75% of the words in English are already excluded.
    The linguistic systems of the language will mean, therefore, that only a verb phrase, with or without an adverbial, can follow our example.  That still leaves around 25,000 verbs in the language which could conceivably come next.
    This is not, strictly speaking, an example of grammatical collocation (see above for that) but an artefact of the language's grammar.
  2. Presupposed Meaning
    because language is not a random collection of significations but utilised for the purposes of communication, so the phrase, Because she ..., cannot rationally be followed by:
        ... doesn't understand, I will ask her to understand
        ... is alone, she is with people

    because no communication properly results (despite being grammatically well formed).
    In addition, certain verbs which only take inanimate or animal subjects such as rain, photosynthesize, calve, low, erode, inundate, overflow, pitter-patter, blare, glint, flame, swish, thud and so on are also excluded.  We cannot have, therefore:
        Because she flamed ...
        Because she eroded
    This kind of constraint on what words are possible combinations is sometimes referred to as presupposed meaning and by that is meant that a word is assumed to have a certain meaning that cannot be applied to just anything in a language.  There are two sorts of presupposed meaning (which overlap to some extent):
    1. Selectional restrictions
      To take a non-verb example, meaning will require that the adjectives influential, tiny, glittering, pollinating etc. are unlikely to occur collocated with the noun elephant simply because the ideas of an influential, tiny, glittering or pollinating elephant are not ones that makes sense to (most) users of a language.
      Equally, the subject noun an elephant is unlikely to occur with verbs such as explain, buzz, explode, drone, meditate, apologise and so on because that is not what elephants do (presumably).
      The number of ways to finish the sentence which begins:
          Because the elephant ...
      is therefore severely limited by the nature of elephants.  Grammatically, of course, most of the 25,000 English verbs can follow but only a very small percentage of that number will make any sense.
      With an adjective such as studious for example, we would presuppose a person as the reference because animals and inanimate entities cannot by the nature of the way the world works be studious.
      On the other hand, an adjective such as asymmetrical is very unlikely to be applied to a person because it is simply not a characteristic of most people and one such as electromagnetic has a much more limited range of possible nouns which it can modify.
      Of course, in poetic language, when all bets are off in this regard, almost any combination is allowed for effect.  Most of us, however, are not teaching English to aspiring poets.
    2. Collocation restrictions
      These are more central to our concern here and much more arbitrary because they do not depend on our encyclopaedic knowledge of the way the world operates.
      For example, in English you brush your teeth but in German you clean your teeth and in other languages other verbs will be used (including polish) on a more or less random basis.  In English, too, we take a taxi but catch a train and in other languages, again, different verbs will be used and the concept of catching something as large as a train is obscure.

What is meant by non-random collocation is, therefore, not a matter of random vs. systematic phenomena, it is a matter of comparative degrees of probability.  It is an analogue, not a digital phenomenon.  Degrees of probability are determined grammatically and semantically.
There are, in other words, regularities in the collocational systems of a language, any language, which reduce randomness but the system is not random to begin with.



mapping the data  

Collocational aspects of many words vary according to the context (i.e., field of discourse) in which they occur.  For example, within a business context a verb such as grow might collocate with market or business as in:
    We need to grow the market
    They grew the business year on year
but in non-context-specific fields, the verb usually means cultivate as in, e.g.:
    I grow vegetables
or intransitively to mean get larger as in
    The children are growing quickly
All specialist fields (registers) have their own internal jargon (or specific terminology to be more polite) so, whereas a teacher of language might refer to:
    intermediate level
a legislator might refer to
    creating a level playing field
a builder might refer to
    foundation level
and a sports commentator might suggest a competitor is able to
    level the score.
The example above with the verb map is clearly set in an IT context but a geographer would probably use the verb quite differently and with different noun objects such as:
    map the transport links.

These considerations do not solely apply to verbs, although verb-noun collocations are good examples of the working of register influences:

Context, as usual in language teaching, is crucial.



dancing, tripping or boogying?  

A concept closely allied to register is style (so closely, in fact that the terms are routinely confused).
Style is influential in the selection of collocating words because although:
    settle the bill
    pay the bill
    foot the bill

are all example of phrasal synonymy, as we have seen, they are stylistically variable from the formal to the neutral and the informal, respectively.

All the sorts of lexical combinations which are identified above are subject to stylistic variations so we may have, for example:

Formal Neutral Informal
admirable idea excellent idea super idea
accede to a suggestion agree to a suggestion go along with a suggestion
supremely confident extremely confident incredibly confident
pod of whales group of whales bunch of whales
speak loquaciously speak at length speak long-windedly
articulate say put into words

Informally, verb plus prepositional phrase collocations are frequently alternatives to more formal verbs.  It is also averred that verb + adverb or adverbial combinations are less formal than single-word parallels (at least when an alternative exists).  For example:
    go to the next stage
    go on
are less formal than
    throw away
is less formal than

For more, see the guide to style and register linked in the list of related guides at the end.



How natural is it?  

The citation from Lewis also included the phrase: combinations of words which occur naturally.  The term naturally here needs a little investigation because it is gradable concept not an on-off attribute of anything.  We can define natural in many ways but the essence is that it is not contrived or contrary to some kind of usual, ordinary or expected law.

Naturally(!), among speakers of any language, opinions will vary and what one speaker finds a perfectly natural combination of words may appear to another as false, poorly formed or clumsy at best, plain wrong at worst.
For example, would you be happy to accept all the following as being 'natural'?

an influential book
a powerful book
a dominant book
a prominent book
a forceful book
peel the carrot
pare the carrot
skin the carrot
clip the carrot
trim the carrot
eat soundly
eat healthily
eat beneficially
eat nutritiously
eat wholesomely

More to the point, do you think everyone who speaks English as a first language would agree?

It is, in fact, especially with weak- or medium-strength collocations, very difficult to decide what is and is not natural.  However, to help us these days, we have access via corpus research to very large samples of natural language data from which we can see the patterns that are frequent, those that are unusual and those that do not occur or are vanishingly rare.
However, frequency is not necessarily a measure of naturalness because some combinations of words can be infrequent but natural because they are confined to certain unusual registers and/or contexts.
For example, the terms:
    compose language
    creep soundlessly
    careful operation
    heritage phenomena
    downsized workforce
    matrix management

are, according to some corpus research, really quite rare but the fact that they do occur with more much than random frequency implies that they are natural enough and few speakers of the language would wince if they read or heard them in particular contexts.
Unfortunately, teachers are rarely able to access corpus research findings in real time in the classroom (although they can when planning what to teach) so we are thrown back on our intuitions about language which may or may not be typical of the speech community we represent.

It is rare, in any case, for false collocation to result in incomprehensibility and all these examples of probably false collocations are clear in terms of the speaker / writer's intentions:
    She was deeply overjoyed
    They opted for their Member of the Senate
    He was expelled from the army
    He has a group of fish in his pond
    The wind was very heavy
    She rode a new vehicle to work
    I need to get a new square of glass put in the window
    He dived profoundly in the river
    She spoke with happiness

So, we should not become too fixated on the issue of natural collocations, especially at lower levels where communication of an idea will often be more important than natural-sounding language.

The point is made below, however, that learners expect some certainty in terms of what they are told about language and telling them that, for example:
    Well, yes 'strong rain' and 'boiling sunshine' are possible, I guess, but I wouldn't say it
is rarely reassuring or helpful.

The point is made below, too, that many multi-purpose nouns, often hypernyms, do not form very natural-sounding collocations so, for example:
    a box of cigarettes
    a group of furniture
    a container of paint

all sound slightly unnatural but, failing mastery of the terms carton, suite and pot, they will communicate effectively.  See below for more on noun + noun collocations of this sort.
Equally, mastery of multi-purpose verb phrases such as begin to do / play will often stand learners in good stead if they do not know how to say, e.g.:
    go in for golf
    take up knitting

A point made above concerned the limited range of prime verbs in English whose mastery allows learners to express an enormous range of ideas with few linguistic resources.  Those verbs are:
    be | bring | come | do | get | give | go | keep | make | put | take
and it is possible to use them to get one's meaning across even if what one says is collocationally flawed.
    The courier brought the parcel to the office
might be better rendered with a verb which collocates more obviously with the object noun as
    The courier delivered the parcel to the office
but the sense is unimpaired using a prime verb.
Moreover, because prime verbs are often delexicalised, their collocates are very numerous and the use of prime verbs will often sound quite natural, especially informally.



Meaning and collocation

Traditionally, collocation is analysed in terms of identifying which words naturally co-occur and then selecting, analysing, listing and teaching them in a way that endeavours to make sense of a very wide area of language study.  Lewis (2008) advocates encouraging learners to notice co-occurrences of words and become aware of how words they know form partnerships with others.
However, if different forms of meaning are processed differently by human brains, as may well be the case, there is some mileage in looking at the different types of meaning which are encoded in collocations one may encounter in a language.

What follows draws heavily on Macis and Schmitt (2017) although they are not alone in noticing that meaning may be sidelined in the pursuit of an understandable and accessible way of presenting and teaching some of the huge numbers of natural collocations in the language.  Others, for example, Xiao and McEnery (2006), cited later, are also focused on meaning rather than structure.

Macis and Schmitt consider three types of meaning encoded in collocating phrases (although they draw on a small number (54) of collocations of adjective + noun and verb + noun collocations only).

Literal meaning
Most collocations fall into this category.
For these expressions, it is enough to understand the meanings of the individual words to understand the phrase so, for example understanding:
    thunderous noises
    run a business
    wholly mistaken
    spray paint
    drive recklessly
[something] to oneself
etc. along with thousands more naturally occurring combinations simply requires the learner to understand the meanings of the words and add meaning 1 to meaning 2 to get the meaning of the whole phrase.
Figurative meaning
Some collocations fall into the realm of idioms in English and are not understandable through access to the meanings of the words that make them up.  For example:
    a big noise
    run a risk
    escape by the skin of one's teeth
    bread and circuses
    drive up the wall
    bark up the wrong tree

exhibit at least a degree of non-compositionality and are not readily understood by considering the individual meanings of the words that make them up.
Moreover, these collocations may actually be disallowed in a literal sense so while
    He's a big noise in the bank
means he is an important and influential figure,
    *They were making a big noise at the party
is a false collocation because great, huge, dreadful etc. would be the preferred collocating adjectives for the noun.
Duplex meanings
Some collocations have a foot in both camps (so to speak).  They have both literal and figurative meanings.  For example:
    I enjoy hot potatoes
may refer literally to cooked food
it may also refer figuratively to a difficult and important problem in, e.g.:
    In her job she deals with the really hot potatoes
Macis and Schmitt's example is:
    one-way ticket
which may refer to a type of travel permission or may refer to an irrevocable step as in, e.g.:
    It's a one-way ticket to disaster.


If, as is claimed, not only in the study cited above, the figurative meanings of collocations may make up as much as 25% of all collocations, there are classroom implications so, teachers need, according to Macis and Schmitt, to:

  1. Be alert to any possible figurative meanings of collocations that they intend their learners to encounter and notice.
  2. Be aware of and use corpora data to set collocations in useful co-texts.
  3. Help learners to guess from context and co-text whether a phrase is meant figuratively or literally by exposing them to both kinds of use.
  4. Encourage learners in the use of dedicated collocation dictionaries (see below for a little more on these).

This sort of admonition applies equally, of course to the teaching of any lexis so will not come as a sudden revelation. Macis and Schmitt recognise this when they conclude:

collocations cannot be seen as merely the co-occurrence of words. With collocations, just as with individual words, meaning matters.
(op cit.: 58)



Analysing the six types of lexical collocation

Some forms of lexical collocation are more frequent and more frequently troublesome for learners but they are all important (with the possible exception of verb plus prepositional phrases) to cover if our learners' ambition to sound natural (whatever that means) in English is to be fulfilled.  Adjective + noun and verb + noun have already been identified as important areas.

We can now look in a little more detail at these six types one by one.


Adjective + noun

warm rain  

Some adjectives are so promiscuous that almost no exclusion is possible and these include:
    good, nice, pleasant, lovely
    bad, unpleasant, ugly, difficult

and so on.
These adjectives will not collocate with all nouns, of course, because certain combinations are semantically virtually impossible, such as:
    unpleasant enjoyment
    pleasant illness
    difficult weather

However, the range of nouns that they will collocate with is so large as to be impossible to list exhaustively.  They form, in other words, such weak collocations that they do not commend themselves as a teaching target.

Other adjectives (most of them) form medium-strength collocations and can be the target of our teaching and these include:
    heavy, strong, weighty, dense, thick, high, tall, substantial, fat
    light, bright, elegant, easy, simple, gentle, cheerful, happy
, thin
and so on.  The list can be extended very considerably but this is a guide, not a dictionary or thesaurus.
With these adjectives, it is possible to extract certain patterns which can act as rules of thumb for learners to use.  For example:

heavy is usually used with materials and physical objects so we have:
    a heavy car
    heavy rain
    heavy metal
    a heavy person

etc. but the near synonym, weighty, is often reserved for abstract concepts so we may have
    a weighty problem
    a weighty issue
    a weighty influence
    a weighty question

etc. in which the adjective heavy is not allowable.
thick and fat are near synonyms in many cases so we can have, e.g.:
    a fat book
    a thick book
    a fat pipe
    a thick pipe

and so on, but this is not always evident because we do not find:
    *a thick cow
    a fat cow
    *a fat cloud
    a thick cloud
    fat fog
    thick fog
and so on.
The point here is not that certain combinations are wholly impossible but that certain combinations are preferable, more frequent and more natural.
The adjective fat refers to physical size but thick is reserved mostly to express notions of density and that determines the types of nouns with which the words collocate easily.  The antonym, thin, is less discerning and expresses both types of notion
    a thin cloud
    a thin book

It may be argued that cheerful and happy are also near synonyms but the first applies almost solely to people and the second is more flexible so we can have:
    a cheerful / happy party
    a cheerful / happy person
    a cheerful / happy face

etc. but we do not usually allow:
    *a cheerful accident
    *a cheerful meeting
    *a cheerful outcome
    *a cheerful coincidence

preferring happy in all cases.
easy and simple are synonyms in many cases so we can allow:
    a simple / easy question
    a simple / easy problem
    a simple / easy sum

but the two words do not always mean not difficult because simple often means not complicated so we find:
    a simple machine
    *an easy machine
    a simple sketch
    *an easy sketch
and so on.
strong and powerful are obvious synonyms with different collocations characteristics so we can have, for example:
    strong coffee
    strong medicine
    strong arguments
    strong suggestions
    strong foundations
    strong tape

and thousands more.  We can also have:
    powerful medicine
    powerful arguments
However, the adjective powerful is more constrained and normally reserved to mean producing power so we allow:
    powerful engine
    powerful muscles
    powerful wind
    powerful leader

    powerful wave
    powerful country
    powerful man

etc. but when the sense is of a static object, we do not allow powerful as an adjective so, e.g.:
    *powerful foundations
    *powerful rope
    *powerful bolt

    *powerful dam
etc. are all unavailable and, conversely:
    *strong engine
    *strong gun
    *strong kick
    *strong program

are also unavailable.
small and little are often cited as synonyms in English but do not always share collocational characteristics.  For example:
It is possible to have:
    a small / little child, book, house, village, chair
etc. and literally thousands of other nouns are possible, but
    ?a little city or country
are uncommon and most would select
    a small city or country
in preference.
In the comparative and superlative forms, small is always the preferred adjective (at least in adult talk) so we would prefer:
    the smallest part
    the smaller house
    the smaller amount

    the littlest part
    the littler house
    the littler amount

almost invariably.

Some adjectives form very strong collocations as we saw with the example of vested interest above.  Other, less extreme, examples include:
    torrential rain
    violent crime
    glittering career
    spoken language / word
    sunken ship / boat
    superhuman strength / efforts / feat
    drifting snow


attributive and predicative adjective use

Most adjectives can be used attributively and predicatively.  In the former case, the collocation tends to be stronger and more obvious.  For example:
    There were some anxious parents outside the school
    The parents outside the school were anxious
    She made a rapid rise to the top of the business
    Her rise to the top of the business was rapid.
This is even more the case when the adjective in question is participial.  In the latter case, the word is likely to be interpreted as a verbal use rather than purely adjectival.  For example:
    I walked in the freezing rain and wind
    The rain and wind I walked in were freezing
    The written word was more memorable
    The more memorable word was written

classifier vs. epithet

Certain adjectives take on enhanced collocational strength when used as classifiers (determining the type of noun) or epithets (describing the noun).  For example:
    She wrote a short book
uses short as an epithet to describe the book, and is not a particularly strong collocation, but
    She wrote a short story
is used to classify the kind of story, is not, in this sense, gradable and is a much stronger collocation, verging on a compound noun.
Compare, too:
    He worked in one of the compact offices upstairs
    He bought a compact disc


Verb + noun

shut the gate  

Many verbs have no particular collocational characteristics but do exhibit semantic exclusion by their nature.  For example, because of the meanings of the verbs we do not allow:
    cut the sky
    envelop the letter
    decide the similarity
    identify the weather

and thousands of other combinations which simply do not make sense (in any language).
One obvious distinction is that, non-poetically and non-metaphorically, we restrict a range of verbs such as decide, oppose, prefer etc. to animate, often human, subjects and others, such as flicker, resonate, ring, tick, slam, snap, burn etc. to inanimate subjects.  Metaphorically, we can use something like:
    She slammed out the door, her patience having finally snapped
but the power of such items rests in ignoring not adhering to the normal collocational characteristics of the verbs.

Some verbs are only used in English with a certain set of nouns and some nouns require a reciprocally restricted range of verbs of which they can be the object.  For example:

The verbs close, shut, block, switch off, turn off etc. mean more or less the same thing but, in English, collocate differently.  We:
    close or shut doors, lids, roads, taps, programs and shops
    turn or switch off lights, radios, computers and taps
    block gaps, views and roads
and there is no obvious reason for this as other languages will translate the phrases differently.  The antonyms of these verbs (open, switch on, turn on) work similarly.
Style plays a role here because shut and block are often less formal than close, as can be seen from signs, which are normally in more formal, frozen style, so we would get:
    Please keep this door closed
rather than
    Please keep this door shut
rather than
Nouns also determine the verbs of which they may be objects so, for example, we:
    break and keep promises
    catch fire, colds, sight of
and diseases
    earn gratitude
and a living
    give promises, consideration, notice, thanks
and words
    hold meetings
    keep secrets
    lend a hand
    lose confidence
and touch
    pay compliments, respects, attention
    play tricks
    run risks
and businesses
    set examples
and sails
    strike matches
    take an interest, pains, offence, root
and steps
    throw parties
and fits
etc. and in none of these cases is it possible to insert more than a very limited range of other verbs, if it is possible at all because the noun is the dominant item.
Some nouns are only (or almost only) connected with certain behaviours, for example:
    the door / shutter / window / lid slammed
    the goats / sheep bleated
    the jet / lion roared
    the dog barked
    the horse reared
    the train / lorry / thunder rumbled
    the donkey brayed
    the bells pealed
    the mud squelched

and hundreds more.
Even in those cases where more than one noun naturally collocates with any verb, the list of possible ones will be severely limited.
Inanimate vs. animate subjects
As well as determining the sorts of object to which a verb can apply, collocational factors play a role in determining verbs' subjects.  For example, verbs which imply or suggest some kind of thought process or deliberate action are usually confined to collocations with human or higher animal subjects so we will find:
    Mary considered braking
    The cat watched the bird
but not
    *The car considered braking
    *The keyboard leapt off the desk
and the same is true for hundreds of verbs which imply deliberate behaviour rather than a simple material process.
However, we sometimes employ what is called pathetic fallacy for effect so we might encounter:
    The car decided not to start
    The photocopier took the opportunity to break down.
This is, naturally, logical nonsense but that's often the way things appear.
An associated issue is that English is rather untidy in assigning subjects to verbs so we allow:
    The tap dripped
    The kettle boiled

etc. when other languages will be more logical and refer to the fact that:
    The water dripped
    The water boiled
Ergative uses of some verbs, in which the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the verb, also seem to break the animate-inanimate rule of thumb so we allow, e.g.:
    The book sold well
    The door opened

    The toast burnt
and so on which are either not allowable or will demand a special verb form in other languages.
Delexicalised verbs
have been covered above and in these cases it is the noun which is dominant in providing meaning and in the selection of the appropriate verb.  In other words, inserting verbs before these nouns is generally a language-specific phenomenon determined by the meaning of the noun and in some cases only one or two possibilities exist:
    _______ the beds
    _______ homework
    _______ a nap
    _______ an alarm clock
    _______ a train / bus etc. to work

    _______ lunch
and so on.

Adverb + adjective

deeply depressed  

Here, too, the semantic properties of the items will exclude certain combinations in all languages so we can't allow:
    *ecstatically miserable
    *miserably happy
    *genuinely false
    *openly untruthful

and so on because such expressions are internally contradictory or oxymoronic.  With adverbs, then, we need to match meaning reciprocally so we do allow:
    ecstatically happy
    miserably depressed
    genuinely honest
    openly relieved

etc. because the meanings of the two elements are complementary.
When the adjective from which an adverb is derived and the following adjective are too close in meaning, however, we cannot combine the terms so we don't allow:
    *sadly unhappy
    *cheerfully happy
    *solitarily alone

The simple rule is that in order to form an acceptable collocation, the adverb and the adverb must contribute separately to the meaning of the phrase, not just be repetitious.

However, intensifying adverbs are another matter.  They come in three forms and their meaning can usually be summarised as very.  How they collocate is often a question of gradability.

  1. Amplifiers increase the strength of the adjective and operate differently with gradable and non-gradable adjectives.
    1. With gradable adjectives the adverbs may indicate the extreme of the scale (up or down) so we will get, e.g.:
          extremely likely
          highly preferable
          insufferably hot

          slightly warm
          marginally preferable

          very interesting
          rather ugly

      and so on.
    2. With non-gradable, on-off adjectives, or adjectives which already represent the extreme of a scale, adverbs simple enhance the meaning so we may have, e.g.:
          hopelessly addicted
          deeply mistaken
          wholly unique
          perfectly complete
          totally wrong
          wholly ecstatic
          perfectly atrocious

The two sorts of amplifiers cannot be used interchangeably.  Those reserved for gradable adjectives such as extremely, enormously, particularly, insufferably, noticeably etc. do not work with non-gradable or extreme adjectives so we do not find:
    *enormously complete
    *particularly dead

    *noticeably perfect
    *slightly atrocious
    *very detestable

etc. and we cannot use those amplifiers which work for non-gradable senses with gradable adjectives so, e.g.:
    *wholly cold
    *completely hot
    *highly tall
    *perfectly old
    *indescribably nice
    *totally lovely
are all disallowed.

  1. Emphasisers work to express the speaker / writer's feelings and will collocate very widely so we can have, e.g.:
        plainly / obviously / clearly / doubtlessly + right / wrong / good / bad / pleasant / unpleasant
    and almost any other adjective so combinations such as
        definitely good
        obviously difficult
        clearly enjoyable

    and so on are all allowed.
    Because the adverb is acting to express the speaker / writer's view, these items do not take their collocational characteristics from the adjectives.  In fact, the lack of any form of reciprocity leads us to believe that they are not collocational phenomena at all.
  2. Downtoners can do three things but collocate differently depending on what they are doing.
    1. Compromisers reduce the speaker / writer's sense of certainty, e.g.:
          quite interesting
          sort of helpful

      Again, because these express the speaker / writer's position collocation, if it can be called that at all, can occur with almost any adjective.
    2. Minimisers downplay the strength of an adjective so collocate most naturally with gradable items as in, e.g.:
          slightly interesting
          probably important

      etc. and not
          *slightly perfect
          *more or less adult

    3. Approximators serve to suggest that something is almost but not wholly the case so they collocate most naturally with non-gradable adjectives as in, e.g.:
          almost unique
          virtually perfect

      etc. but not with gradable concepts such as:
          *almost hot
          *virtually chilly
          *nearly old

Noun + noun


Noun + noun collocations occur preponderantly in four forms:

  1. Compounds or potential compounds
    Where the line is drawn between strongly collocating nouns and true compound nouns is not clear cut.  For example, we can have weak collocations such as:
        loudspeaker switch
    and there are numerous other nouns which will collocate with either element:
        loudspeaker positions
        loudspeaker cable
        loudspeaker controls
        light switch
        light dimmer

        light controls
    However, other very strong collocations are, or may become, compound nouns rather than being obviously the subject of collocation.  For example:
        light + bulb → light-bulb
        lamp + shade → lampshade
        dish + washer → dishwasher

    A simple but slightly unreliable test of whether a combination represents a compound or simply a medium or strong collocation is to pronounce the pairs.  Compounds are usually stressed on the first item.
    For more on compounding, see the guide, linked in the list at the end.
  2. Nouns for groups which many call collective nouns although on this site there is a difference which we will observe here.
    1. Collective nouns
      Collective nouns proper are those which represent a collection of entities and to which it is not necessary to add the of-phrase so we do not, for example, often see:
          an army of soldiers
          a family of relations
          a congregation of worshippers
          the cavalry of horse riders
          a jury of jurywomen

      and so on because the collective noun contains the concept of what makes it up.
    2. Assemblages
      are nouns to represent the whole made up of its parts and some collocate very strongly with certain things or people.  There are lots of these and many of them, especially those for the animal world, are made up or vanishingly rare.  Common ones are:
          flock of sheep / goats / birds
          litter of kittens / puppies
          pack of dogs / wolves / cards
          shoal of fish
          squad of soldiers
          swarm of bees
          a gang of criminals
      and so on.  The number of nouns which collocate in this way is limited and teachable, unless one wants to get bogged down with a murder of crows, an exultation of larks, a bank of monitors, choir of angels, nest of vipers and a murmuration of starlings, of course.  A hunt on the web for collective nouns will provide long, useless lists and many will not actually be true assemblage nouns.
      In terms of colligation or grammatical collocation is it worth observing that both assemblage and collective nouns proper are grammatically singular but often collocate with a plural verb form.  We can have, therefore:
          the squad of players is here
          the squad of players are here
          the jury have reached a verdict
          the jury has reached a verdict

      The use of the plural is either a form of proximity concord (in which the influence of the second plural noun disposes the speaker to use a plural form of the verb) or notional concord (in which the speaker / writer perceives the assembly to be made up of its individuals because they are known).
      In most languages and many varieties of English, including AmE, the singular form is the invariable choice.
  3. Partitives
    There is a dedicated guide to partitives on this site, linked from the list of related guides at the end.  It is enough here to exemplify the collocational aspects of these words by this table, taken from that guide.
    piece of
    bit of
    item of
    touch of
    act of
    ball of
    bar of
    case of
    cloud of
    coat of
    dab of
    drop of
    flash of
    game of
    grain of 
    jar of
    lump of
    measures (pint, meter, acre etc.)
    plate of
    sheet of
    slice of
    speck of
    work of
    rasher (of bacon)
    blade (of grass)
    loaf (of bread)
    pat (of butter)
    ear (of cereal crop)
    clove (of garlic)
    pane (of glass)
    lock (of hair)
    glimmer (of light)
    scoop (of ice-cream)
    gust (of wind)

    On the left, we have weakly collocating partitives which collocate with a huge range of mass nouns so we allow:
        a bit of time
        a touch of irony
        a piece of meat
        an item of information

    and so on.
    However, the realities of collocation exclusion become evident as we move to typical and restrictive partitives because the noun often determines the only appropriate partitive to use.  While piece of can be used with many mass nouns, it cannot be used with nouns which demand certain types of partitives so we do not allow:
        *a piece of milk
        *a piece of dust

    and so on, preferring
        a dash / splash / pint etc. of milk
        a grain / cloud / speck
    etc. of dust.
    The typical partitives collocate according to the nature of the substance so flat things come in sheets, round things in balls, rectangular things in bars and thin things in slices and so on.
    On the far right are some examples of very restricted partitives which are strong collocations and in many cases, although the general partitives may be available, are selected for precision so, for example, we can have
        a bit of bacon
    but no other noun can follow
        a rasher of _______
        a loaf of _______
        a lock of _______

    except, bacon, bread and hair respectively.
    Even when a partitive is used quite widely, its use may be restricted by the noun it modifies (another example of asymmetric reciprocity) so we can allow:
        bunch of people / keys / arguments / houses / cars / books / chairs / words
        swarm of attackers / customers / clubbers / football fans
    and many more, but we are restricted to the use of bunch when it comes to
        bananas, flowers and grapes
    and to swarm when we are referring to
        bees, ants, mosquitoes and the like.
  4. Classifiers
    Many nouns are used quasi-adjectivally to classify other nouns and many of these combinations also verge on compound nouns.  Examples of nouns acting as classifiers (which differ from adjectives in that they do not describe, they classify) are:
        a village pump
        a brick wall
        a plastic toothbrush
        an electric fire
        a customs officer
        a paper plate

    See the note above under adjective-noun combinations where it is observed that adjectives used as classifiers increase the collocation strength of the phrase.

Verb + adverb

shout angrily  

Adverbs may precede or follow the verb and may be separated from it by other adverbials so we encounter, for example:
    He drove into the garage carefully
in which the adverb is separated from the collocating verb by a prepositional phrase
    He carefully drove into the garage
in which the adverb precedes the verb
    He drove carefully into the garage
in which the adverb follows the verb
In all these cases we can legitimately speak of verb + adverb collocates without implying which comes before which.

Again, many adverb + verb combinations are allowed or excluded for semantic rather than purely collocational reasons so we do not encounter
    *saunter quickly
    *stroll excitedly
    *gallop slowly
    *laugh miserably
    *weep happily

and hundreds of other possible combinations because the verbs themselves imply the kinds of behaviour they express.
This is common to all languages and unlikely to be a source of difficulty.
As we saw with verb + noun collocations, however, when both items contribute to the meaning, collocation is frequent so we see:
    saunter casually
    stroll quietly
    laugh happily

and so on.
Again, both parts must normally contribute, not simple repeat the same meaning so:
    *heat warmly
    *sleep unconsciously
    *fill fully

    *relax leisurely
etc. do not occur.
There are numerous exceptions in which the speaker / writer wants to emphasise the verb with an adverb so we do encounter, e.g.:
    stroll slowly
    hurtle rapidly
    race quickly

etc.  These tautologies are often considered stylistically questionable.

Excluded from consideration here are those verbs whose combinations with adverbs produces a new meaning.  These are considered in the guide to multi-word verbs.  They include, e.g.:
    speak up
    come to
    bring about

and many, many more.

We need to be slightly careful to distinguish between adverbs as adjuncts, integral to the clause and modifying how the verb is perceived, and adverbs as disjuncts (or sentence adverbials) whose function is discoursal and whose role is to modify the whole of the clause to which it applies.  For example:
    He spoke clearly at the meeting
contains an adjunct adverb (clearly) which tells us how he spoke.  However,
    Clearly, he spoke at the meeting
contains the same adverb functioning as a disjunct and expressing the speaker's notion of the truth of the proposition.  It tells us nothing about how he spoke so is not, therefore, an instance of collocation.  Compare, too:
    He told me honestly what he thought
which is an example of how honestly collocates with many verbs to do with communication including speak, explain, talk, communicate and others and
    Honestly, he told me what he thought
in which the adverb is a disjunct and expresses the way the speaker wants the hearer to understand what is said.

There is a range of more general-purpose adverbs which collocate naturally with a limited range of verbs.  For example:

strongly collocates with
support, suggest, argue, deny, condemn, oppose, influence, recommend etc.
badly collocates with a range of negative-outcome verbs such as
damage, harm, congest, deform, hurt, injure, need etc.
but not with break, destroy, pulverize, demolish etc. because these are not gradable concepts.
greatly collocates with verbs such as
enjoy, appreciate, relish, value, dislike, disapprove etc.
but not with verbs which already contain the sense of greatly such as adore, worship, love, hate, deplore, detest etc.
deeply can collocate with a range of negative verbs such as
hurt, upset, anger, offend etc.
but not with more positive verbs such as
please, enjoy, compliment, hearten etc.
verbs which represent changes will collocate naturally with adverbs expressing extent and speed, for example:
change quickly
evolve rapidly
alter drastically
modify fundamentally


Verb + prepositional phrase

swing to the right  

There is some doubt whether most verb + prepositional phrase combinations count as collocations at all because:

  1. The combinations are usually perfectly predictable from an understanding of the basic meaning(s) the preposition can realise so, for example:
        waiting for a bus
        hoping for rain
        deciding on an answer

    and so on simply require the learner to understand the preposition.  They may be examples of colligation (insofar as, for example, wait, look, wish and hope are all primed to take a prepositional phrase with for) but not, technically, of lexical collocation.
  2. Many combinations are verb + adverb particle rather than prepositional phrases at all so are better analysed as multi-word verbs.  So, for example:
        break out the sandwiches
        call in the police

    and so on are phrasal verbs + objects, not verbs + prepositional phrases.
  3. Other combinations are better analysed as prepositional verbs so, e.g.:
        complain about the service
        rely on his help
        account for his behaviour

    are all examples of prepositional multi-word verbs.

That said, there are some idiomatic uses which are less easily analysed as anything but strong collocations, verging on clichés or fixed idioms.  Examples include:
    He burst into song
    They burst into tears
    She exploded with anger

    It collapsed in a heap
    It burnt to the ground

which are not prepositional verbs in the true sense.

The other issue is that these combinations are not lexical at all by the definition with which we introduced this guide.  They are grammatical collocations because they involve function words.
If, however, you take the view that the prepositional phrase is a semantic unit rather than a syntactical one, then calling these expressions examples of lexical collocation is legitimate and defensible.


positive negative

Semantic, discourse or collocational prosody

These terms are used in the literature to describe the same phenomenon.  The issue is one of synonymy and semantic fields and whether certain lexemes tend to collocate more frequently or reliably with others which have either negative or positive connotations.
This is a development of the principle of semantic exclusion that we saw above but is slightly more idiomatic and difficult to acquire.
Here are some examples of what is meant:

Example 1:
Certain actions will fall into a semantic field, all being hyponyms with the hypernym or superordinate crime such as:
murder, theft, arson, blackmail, mugging, burglary etc.
and all these nouns will collocate strongly with only a limited range of verbs, the most obvious one being commit.  However, other verbs, near or partial synonyms of commit will not collocate with the members of the same group so we cannot have:
    *execute theft
    *do arson
    *perform burglary

although the stylistically much more formal verb perpetrate can be used with this group of actions.
By the same token, positive actions do not collocate with a verb such as commit or perpetrate so we do not find:
    *commit / perpetrate a kindness
    *commit / perpetrate a favour
    *commit / perpetrate charity
    *commit / perpetrate an entertainment

Example 2:
Another set of similar words comprises negative states and includes, for example:
difficulties, trouble, problems, death, damage, illness, sickness, disease, hitches, setbacks, hindrances, snags etc.
and all these nouns will collocate naturally with the verb cause (and some will collocate with produce, and lead to).  For example:
    He caused trouble
    The substance causes death
    Her behaviour led to setbacks in the programme
    It produced difficulties

However, a near synonymous verb, provide, will not collocate naturally with nouns denoting difficulties but with those that are benefits so we do not usually allow:
    *provide snags
    *provide problems

but allow naturally:
    provide facilities
    provide a service
    provide support
    provide assistance

(Based on Schmitt, 200:78)
Example 3:
The nouns result, outcome and consequence are all near synonyms of each other but the way they are perceived and, hence, the adjectives with which they collocate are different and affected by semantic / collocational prosody.  For example, we can see from:
    important results
    interesting outcomes
    dire consequences
    excellent result
    horrible consequences
    direct result
    obvious outcome
    positive result

that the noun consequence is more than randomly associated with negative events but outcome and the much more common result are either neutral or positive, rarely negative.  The other near synonym, aftermath, is wholly reserved for negative outcomes, so we allow, e.g.:
    the terrible aftermath
but not
    *the wonderful aftermath
(based on Xiao & McEnery, 2006:110)
Example 4:
Adjectives are even more prone to the effects of collocational prosody so while we allow, for example:
    weak tea
    weak beer
    weak muscles
    weak support
    weak material
    weak memory

near synonyms of weak behave differently so we do not allow:
    *feeble tea / beer
    *puny material
    *fragile muscles
    *weedy foundations
    *puny memory

etc., but do allow some other combinations such as:
    fragile / feeble support

Words which are generally defined as having no particular connotation, either positive or negative, can acquire connotations depending on the selection of a collocate.  A well-known example appears in:
    The cause of the fire
in which the word cause simply means reason for and is neutral.
However, as we saw above, the verb is almost always used for negative events so we have, e.g.:
    This caused a problem
    She caused the fight

    That was the cause of the accident
but we rarely encounter:
    That caused his success
    She caused some laughter
    This caused her happiness
If, however, we do select these positive collocating nouns, the verb assumes a more positive sense.  (And in the second of these examples, the negative sense of the verb is so strong that it may well refer to unkind laughter rather than happiness.)

Examples in political speeches and statements are also common so while the word benefit in, for example:
    A benefit of this machine is its quietness
we are clearly using the word benefit positively.  However, in:
    Benefits and other underserved handouts to people
the word becomes, by association, negative.
In most reference books, the term Brussels is merely the name of the capital of Belgium.  Use the word as a classifier in, e.g.:
    Brussels bureaucrats
however, and it automatically assumes a negative connotation for many.
In an expression such as
    recent immigrant
the word immigrant has no particular connotation.  Ally it, however to illegal and it becomes pejorative.
By the same token, the word countryside is normally considered neutral but describe it as threatened, precious or British and for many it takes on very positive associations.



Teaching collocation

When you set out to teach collocation, it is worth bearing in mind that many collocations are translatable, word-for-word across languages.  Check beforehand and do a little comparative language work before teaching something your learners already know.

corpora example


Some of the analysis above draws on what are called corpora.  Essentially, these are extremely large samples of language data which can be used to investigate frequencies of and concordances between words and that lies at the heart of collocational research.
Some extremely useful corpora are available free of charge online and can be used by teachers to investigate the ways in which words combine (and with what kinds of other words) to make meaning.
You may, for example, intuitively know that
    a positive result
is more common or natural than
    a positive consequence
but relying purely on one person's intuition is not always trustworthy and a little research may be called for.
One very useful place to look is https://corpus.byu.edu.  You will have to register, probably, but once you have, the use of the various corpora on that site is free.
There are some provisos, however:

  1. Corpora draw on a variety of data – written, spoken, colloquial, academic and so on – so you need to decide on the context for the language you want to investigate.
  2. If your focus is on General English, then you would be well advised to use a corpus of data which focuses on a variety of text types.  The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), for example, draws data from spoken language, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers and academic texts.  Other may be more restrictive.
  3. Some corpora cover a long period (Google books, for example, considers texts written from the 16th century onwards) so may not reflect modern usage.
  4. Some corpora are register specific so will reflect how words are used in certain settings only.  If you want to know about the everyday, colloquial use of a word, you would be well advised not to use a corpus based, for example, on United States Supreme Court decisions.
    On the other hand, if you are teaching English for Academic Purposes then a list such as the Academic Word List (available as an appendix in Schmitt, 2000:182 et seq.) will be most useful.
  5. Size matters when it comes to corpora and they vary considerably from the 14 billion words in the new iWeb corpus down to 50 or 100 million words in other corpora.
  6. Frequency matters, too, and, although items like whiteboard or role play may not be particularly frequent, they are almost essential to know for learners of English.  Using frequency as the sole measure of whether to teach a word is perilous because learners may need a less frequent term such as container rather than be troubled, especially at lower levels, to learn the more frequent but restricted items like box, can, tin, jar, bottle, carton, packet, tube, crate, case and so on.
  7. Individuals vary considerably in terms of the language they need and the registers in which they want to use English.  The term transfer fee may not be particular frequent but is important to football fans and a term like baste is rare but important to those interested in cooking.  If you happen to be hard of hearing, then you need that collocation or idiom, if you are not, you probably don't.

Corpora vs. intuition

It has often been averred, by linguists particularly interested in corpus research, that corpora are invariably a better guide to collocation and naturalness than the intuitions of any single speaker of the language.
The reasoning is that corpora are both objective and huge and the data they present is drawn from much more than any one speaker of the language could possible encounter in a lifetime.
Most linguists (including those interested mostly in grammar, such as Chomsky) are perfectly happy to rely on intuition as a guide to identifying well-formed and acceptable language but many are much less happy to give the same credit to a speaker's intuition regarding lexical use.
There is often an observable mismatch between the data produced from corpora research and the intuitions of experienced speakers of the language and the assumption, made by those most interested in corpora, is frequently that it is the intuitions rather than corpus data which are faulty.
That may not be the case.

For example, one study which attempted to compare intuition with corpora data focused on the word feet and asked native speakers to identify frequent collocates of the noun.
What happened, somewhat predictably, is that the speakers used their intuitions and responded with words which applied to the use of feet as a body part.  Corpora research, also unsurprisingly, show that the most frequent collocates for the word feet are to do with the measurement unit of 30.48 centimetres.  This, the study concludes is evidence that intuition is an unreliable guide.
Is it?  It seems arguable that frequency here is not a good guide to usefulness.
Speakers of the language may also be better than corpora in intuitively recognising in the classroom issues of semantic exclusion discussed above, not because their ideas about the frequency of items are sound (in most cases they are not) but because they can look holistically at the language and make assumptions and judgements based on more than frequency alone.
Some of the above is drawn from research by McGee (2006).



One consequence of the development of corpora is to usher in a golden age for lexicographers and modern learners' dictionaries are now much better than they were at identifying and presenting common collocations.  They are a very productive resource for those who have the leisure to consult them while writing.
Additionally, dedicated collocation dictionaries are now available and most draw heavily (or solely) on corpus research.  As a resource for reference purposes such books are, naturally, very helpful but a text such as the Oxford Collocations Dictionary which claims to include "over 250,000 collocations and over 75,000 examples" is daunting at the least, useless at worst.  A saving grace of that reference source is that it has included "Special pages that each pull together collocations on a particular topic such as business, meetings, and sport" and register is, indeed, an important issue in collocation work as we saw above.
Naturalness in the use of collocations in English is not likely to be enhanced by constant reference to a resource of this kind.
A better approach may be to use the patterning we have analysed here to present language logically and in a consistent, rule-based manner.  That is not easy in the case of collocations, but it is an achievable target.



Rule 1: Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
George Orwell (Eric Blair), 1946

While Orwell's first rule of language use is suitable and valuable advice for native-speaker writers in English to avoid the use of cliché and worn-out metaphor, it is probably of less utility for learners of the language at anything except the highest levels.
In fact, well-worn and familiar clichés such as
    the calm before the storm
    the darkest hour
    in the nick of time
    frightened / scared to death
    read between the lines
    the writing on the wall

and hundreds more are lexical chunks well worth learning unless one's ambition is to be an original writer in the language.
These are strongly collocating and predictable combinations that have great utility for learners although they may be disparaged as clichés by the cognoscenti.

(Incidentally, the six rules in full are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

and are routinely ignored, including on this site.)



If you are a native or near-native speaker of English, there will be a temptation to concede that almost all combinations of words are possible collocations and, therefore, acceptable.  This is a temptation worth resisting because learners are not generally very interested in the quirky and unlikely but possible and a good deal more concerned with sounding natural.  So, for example, although you may be able to think of a time when it is possible to produce
    Undertake my homework
your learners will be a good deal more concerned to be able to say
    Do my homework
    Hand in my homework
    She set homework

Not being clear about what is and is not permissible is unhelpful even if that means editing or being economical with the truth.

The following is taken from the simpler guide to this area in the initial-plus training section.  If you have been there, you've done it.

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
This may help your learners avoid saying things like
    *thin street
    *flimsy load
    *boiling sunshine
    *severely cold
    *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
lexical approach which considers delexicalisation in more detail
empty or delexicalised verbs for a list in PDF format
lexical relationships for more on syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic patterns
colligation for a consideration of what is called grammatical collocation in some analyses
multi-word verbs are sometimes (but not here) considered a form of grammatical collocation
compounding for more on noun + noun combinations
classifiers, partitives and group nouns for a separate consideration of special noun + noun relationships
style and register for a guide which attempts to distinguish between these related concepts
idiomaticity if you want to know more about idioms, binomials and duplex expressions

Lewis, M., 2008, Implementing the Lexical Approach, Boston: Heinle Cengage Learning
Macis, M and Schmitt, N, 2017, The figurative and polysemous nature of collocations and their place in ELT, ELT Journal Volume 71/1 pp50-59, Oxford: Oxford University Press
McGee, ID, 2006, Lexical Intuitions and Collocation Patterns in Corpora, PhD thesis, Centre for Language and Communication Research, School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University
Orwell, G, 1946, Politics and the English Language, London: Horizon
Schmitt, N, 2000, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Xiao, R & McEnery, T, 2006, Collocation, Semantic Prosody, and Near Synonymy: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective, Applied Linguistics 27/1 pp103–129, Oxford: Oxford University Press