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What are Collocations?

You might have seen the term collocations, and if not, then perhaps the less technical word-partnerships, or something similar. Even if you don’t remember seeing these terms, you’ve very likely done some language exercises where you should combine verbs and nouns such as do (verb) + housework (noun); or make combinations of adjectives and nouns, as in quick (adjective) + lunch (noun).

The word collocation is used in linguistics, and describes how native speakers of a language prefer particular word combinations over others that are equally grammatical. Collocation, thus, is a technical term, but no more so than other terms for talking about language. Terminology that describes word classes, such as noun, verb, adverb, and preposition are all technical, aren’t they? You’ve probably learned, or at least heard, terms describing English tenses, such as present-perfect-progressive, haven’t you. So, I see no reason why we shouldn’t use, the term collocation, which as it turns out, is the source of nearly all of the mistakes that advanced speakers make. Yes, you read that correctly: once you’ve reached the advanced level, you are no more likely to make grammatical mistakes than an average native speaker.

Take a look at the following sentences, all of which are grammatically correct, but do NOT sound “natural” to native speakers. Can you tell why they sound wrong?

  1. I often make sport on Saturday afternoon.
  2. We made some nice photos in France.
  3. Paul is a strong smoker.
  4. Brenda is completely beautiful.

Since these sentences are grammatically, and meaningfully, correct, why don’t they sound correct? Well, in sentence 1, the verb make is paired, i.e., collocated, with the noun sport; and no native-speaker of English would ever do that, preferring the verb-noun combination do sport, instead.

It’s the same problem in sentence 2, the verb (make) is not collocated naturally, i.e., correctly, with the noun (photo). The verb take, however, collocates nicely with photo.

Collocation involves more than combinations of nouns and verbs, as is seen in sentences 3 and 4, where 3 uses an unnatural adjective-noun combination — rather than “strong smoker,” use “heavy smoker;” and 4 has an unnatural adverb-adjective pairing with completely beautiful, which should be absolutely beautiful.

It’s likely that every language has collocations, i.e., particular combinations of words that native speakers of that language use more often than chance alone could account for, but paradoxically the typical native speaker (of any language) is not consciously, or actively, aware of her collocational knowledge. Of course every native speaker knows what sounds right, or wrong.

Now that you know something about collocation, how can you build your collocational knowledge? First, the good news is that you already possess a considerable, unconscious, amount of collocational knowledge, which you certainly acquired the same way that native speakers do, by seeing, or hearing, particular word combinations over and over again. So, an excellent way to build upon the collocational abilities that you have already acquired is to read. Listening to audiobooks or podcasts works well too, provided you listen attentively. Likewise, there are dictionaries of collocations available, as well as exercise books, which you can get at your favorite book seller.

Seven Ways to Talk About The Future in English

Talking about the future in English is done differently than talking about the present or the past. This is probably because the present and the past are more certain than the future. If you were to ask me where I am and what I am doing at this very moment, I could tell you. But I could not be as certain where I will be, or what I will be doing 24 hours from now. This lack of certainty about the future influences how we talk about it.

Now, before getting into the topic, I should mention that I discuss English tenses and aspects in quite a bit of detail in this article, so you might want to read it first. Otherwise, let’s get started.

Does English have a future tense?

In a way it does, but strictly speaking, no. English does not have a future tense in the same way that it has a present and a past tense. I will assume that you are familiar with the present and past tenses, their constructions and meanings, as well as the progressive and perfect aspects. And I mention this because, as you will soon see, we use the present tense more or less exclusively for talking about the future. Here are some examples, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:

  1. Can we meet next Thursday at 9:00?
  2. I’m spending the day in London tomorrow.
  3. My flight leaves at 6:30.
  4. Will you be in the office before 8:00?
  5. I’m going to go and get some lunch.

The five sentences above represent the most usual ways to refer to the future. What do you notice about their grammatical characteristics? How would you describe them, grammatically?

Sentence 1, we can see clearly refers to the future because of “next Thursday.” But, what if the speaker had asked, “Can you help me with something now?”

Sentence 2 also clearly refers to the future because of “tomorrow,” but the speaker could just as well have said, “I’m spending the day in London today.”

Sentence 3 has the same construction as, “A flight leaves every day at 6:30.”

Sentences 4 and 5 are the only two that always refer to the future. Sentence 4 uses will, which is a modal auxiliary verb (you can just call it a modal); and sentence 5 uses the expression “be going to,” which always has a future referent.

The thing is, sentence 4 is grammatically no different than sentence 1, and sentence 5 is grammatically no different than sentence 2. So, why does English have so many different ways to refer to the future?

To be honest, I’m not sure that I can answer that question satisfactorily. English, like every other human language, has developed over a long period of time, and gets passed on, generation by generation. That English is now spoken in so many parts of the world by such a large number of people is due to historical circumstances. In other words, English was not intended to be a language for the world. English native speakers don’t have any problems with the variety of ways to refer to the future, in fact just the opposite: we use the variety to our benefit. And you can learn to do this, too!

So, let’s now look at the relationships between form and meaning, starting with the present-progressive.

The present-progressive with future meaning

Personal plans are expressed using the present-progressive with future meaning. When I tell you, “I’m having dinner with an old friend this weekend,” I’m telling you about my personal plan.

The going-to future

Intentions are expressed using the, so called, going-to future. “I’m going to paint the kitchen next weekend,” or “I’m going to visit Oslo someday;” these are intentions, in other words, things that we have in mind to do. The construction of the going-to future is identical to every other sentence that uses the progressive aspect, i.e., “be” + -ing,” but the expression going to always has a referent that looks forward, relative to the time of speaking. This is also true when we use the going-to future in the past tense, as in: “I was going to pick up a pizza at Vesuvio’s on the way home, but then I remembered that they were closed.”

Besides intentions, the going-to future also expresses what is imminent, i.e., just about to happen. “Look at those dark clouds. We’d better find cover. It’s going to rain.”

The going-to future is used a lot in English, but most English speakers, especially native speakers, don’t say “going to,” but rather “gonna,” which is quicker and easier. Generally, when you are writing you should spell out “going to” in full; though in emails and messages that are not formal, it is okay to write “gonna.” You also might see “gonna,” as well as “wanna,” meaning “want to” in subtitles.

The present-simple with future meaning

“What time does the meeting start?” “When does the next train for Frankfurt leave?” The present-simple tense refers to a future that is scheduled. You might think of it as a stronger, or more fixed future compared with the present-progressive. If you want to sound like your plans are unalterable, use the present-simple:

  • George: “Can you meet me for lunch tomorrow, Martin?”
  • Martin: “Tomorrow? Sorry, George, I’m in Dublin tomorrow. Next week, perhaps?”
The will future

The best way to understand the will future is that it is neutral. The will future is not used to express plans, nor intentions. Therefore, if you don’t yet have a plan, use will, e.g., “Oh, no! I left my newspaper on the train. I’ll have to buy another one.”

The will future is also used when making predictions, e.g., “They said that tomorrow will be warm and sunny. I won’t need my jacket.”

Future conditional sentences also use will: “If it’s warm and sunny this weekend, I’ll go for a hike.”

Will and shall are both modals, and shall is sometimes used instead of will. Modals, as you may remember, are a type of help verb that modify the meaning of the main verb in the sentence. Can is also a modal. Compare the following two sentences, paying attention to how can influences the meaning:

  1. My sister plays piano with a jazz group.
  2. My brother can play piano, but he never does.

In sentence 1 we understand that the speaker’s sister knows how to play the piano because she plays in a group, therefore she must be able to play. Sentence 2 tells us that the speaker’s brother knows how to play, but does not use his abilities. So, can, in sentence 2, expresses ability.

Modals have a range of meaning, but by and large they express ability, opportunity, possibility, probability, and obligation.

Now, I don’t wish to focus that much on modals, but for reference, the following are modals: can, could, shall, should, may, might, and must.

As I mentioned earlier, shall is sometimes used instead of will, but shall has some limitations that you should be aware of. The big limitation is that shall should only be used in the first person. If you use shall in the second or third person (you or they), it sounds like you are giving an order. Using shall offers some variety to constantly using will, though you will tend to sound somewhat formal: “The telephone is ringing. Shall I answer it, or will you?”

Will be doing

As I mentioned previously, will is not used when referring to plans or intentions, but an interesting usage could be described as “in the course of events.” Thus, you could say, “If things go as expected, this time next month I’ll be lying on a white sandy beach.”

Will have done

I have one last thing to say about will: when you combine will with the present-perfect, or present-perfect-progressive, you can make sentences like these:

  1. I expect that by July, Marc will have completed his thesis.
  2. By this time next month, Gretta will have been working here for 25 years.

You may find such constructions unnecessarily stylish or cumbersome, but provided you can use the perfect and perfect-progressive aspects in the present and past tenses, it’s not really more difficult to add will to jump forward in time.

In conclusion

English has a variety of ways to refer to the future, and the best way depends upon what you are talking about, e.g., plans, intentions, etc. In my experience as an English teacher, I observe that English learners tend to overuse will, for instance asking, “What will you do this weekend?” instead of, “What are you doing this weekend?” A native speaker would usually ask “What are you doing…” because it implies that the other person, and is considered more polite.

Finally, if you haven’t been using “gonna,” I recommend that you start. Native English speakers are always talking about what they’re gonna do, and you can, too!

The Two English Tenses You Need to Know

Strictly speaking, English only has two tenses: the present tense and the past tense. Of course English speakers can talk about the future, too, but there is no single, fixed, future tense. Instead, English has a variety of ways to talk about the future, which the following examples show:

  1. I’m in Chicago all next week, and so I won’t be able to join the English lesson.”
  2. “I’m taking my summer vacation at the end of August. We’re going to go to the North Sea.”

As you can see in the examples, in addition to will, which is a type of help verb (a modal auxiliary actually), we also use the present simple and present progressive to talk about the future. But the focus of this article is not on how to talk about the future in English, but rather English’s two tenses, and two aspects. We’ll discuss tenses first.

What exactly are tenses?

One thing that tends to confuse learners is what tenses really are, in a grammatical sense. No doubt you are aware that tenses are connected with time, but the present and past tenses differ in a grammatical way, and this is shown on the verb. Compare the following:

  1. I see a bird.
  2. I saw a bird.

In sentence 2, the verb “see” is inflected, in other words changed, to its simple-past form. This is the only difference between the two sentences, but it is a meaningful one.

Now, besides the present and the past tenses, you have probably heard of the present progressive, past progressive, present perfect, and some other “tenses,” as well. What I would like to suggest is that, if after many years of learning English, you are still struggling to understand the tenses, you might find it easier if we break them down into smaller components, and look separately at what each component does. This is why I think it’s a good idea to separate tenses from aspects. So, let’s take a look at aspects.

What are aspects?

Aspects are not tenses, in a technical sense, but they are used, or rather combined, with tenses; in fact they cannot be used without a tense. For this reason, many grammar books simply refer to them as tenses. Again, I am of the opinion that you will ultimately reach a better level of understanding if we discuss tenses and aspects separately. Let’s first consider the role that aspects play in English grammar.

One could say that tenses refer to places, or points, on the timeline: the past comes before the present, which comes before the future. So, if tense is a grammatical representation of where we are on the timeline, aspect represents how the time flows.

English has two aspects: the progressive and the perfect. Aspects, like tenses, have particular meanings, and unique grammatical features. Let’s start by looking at the progressive, which some grammar books refer to as the continuous: the progressive and continuous are the same thing, in other words.

The progressive

The progressive aspect is formed by combining the verb to be (in an appropriately inflected form, i.e., am, are, is, was, were, been) with the present participle. The present participle is formed by adding -ing to the end of the base verb. Here is an example of a sentence in the present (tense) progressive (aspect): We are discussing English tenses.

As far as what the progressive means, all of the following are expressed by the progressive: actions in progress; repeated actions or events; changes (to states or situations); temporary or short-term situations.

Now, as I mentioned above, aspects must be combined with tenses; but tenses do not need to be combined with aspects. When a sentence does not have an aspect, we call it simple.

Sentences that are simple, i.e., without an aspect, denote the following: facts; beliefs; states; instantaneous events (an event that takes no measurable time); sensory perception (taste, smell, etc.); permanent or long-term situations.

So, if you are talking about an action in progress, use the progressive. If you’re describing a fact, your sentence should be simple. If you are talking about a short-term or temporary situation, use the progressive. And if you want or need to communicate that a situation is long-term or permanent, use the the simple.

At this point, if you are wondering when, or how, you should use the progressive in the past tense, let me say as clearly as I can that the meanings of the progressive do not change, regardless of the tense you use. Therefore, if you need to refer to an action in the past AS IT WAS IN PROGRESS, use the past-progressive. For instance, “Yesterday, when I was shopping for running shoes, I ran into an old friend of mine.”

The past progressive is normally used when more than one thing is happening, in the past. Specifically, something is happing that takes a certain amount of time, e.g., shopping; and during that time, some other thing happens, e.g., running into an old friend. If it is not necessary to emphasize the duration (the passage of time), you can use the simple-past, e.g., “Yesterday I went shopping and bought a new pair of running shoes. I also ran into an old friend of mine.”

The perfect

Whereas the progressive is concerned with actions and other durative events, the perfect you might say functions like a time bridge, connecting two points on the timeline.

The perfect is not a tense, but you could say that it acts like one. There are four ways that we use the perfect; you could think of these as the four meanings of the perfect:

  1. Continuative meaning: “I have worked here for 5 years.” (This is the meaning that probably causes you the most frustration.)
  2. Life experience meaning: “I’ve been to Milan once; it was many years ago.”
  3. Resultative meaning: “My car has broken down; would you give me a lift to the train station?”
  4. Hot news meaning: “Have you heard who just won the lottery?”

The form of the present-perfect is have (has) + the past participle, e.g., “Someone has drunk all the coffee,” or “Where have I left my glasses?”

When the perfect aspect is used in the present tense, one of the connecting points is the present, and the other is in the past.

A very common problem for learners of English is using the present perfect when the simple past would be considered more correct, e.g., “I have received the news last January.”

When referring to a time that is in the past, e.g., “last January,” the past-simple tense is what you should use. This is because the past-simple tense denotes one event, action, situation, or state that was completed in the past. Words such as yesterday, ago, and last, e.g., last week/month/year, etc., are good indicators that you should use the past-simple tense.

Using the progressive and perfect aspects together

Here is an example of a present-perfect-progressive sentence: “I have been reading in English a lot the past few months; it’s getting easier and easier” Hopefully, the meaning is clear to you: reading, a repeated action, is expressed in the progressive; because the speaker feels that her English has improved as a result, she uses the perfect aspect, as well.

Here’s another example of a present-perfect-progressive sentence, this time with continuative meaning: “I have been learning English since I was 12 years old.”

See if you can you tell what this tense is: “Prior to the pandemic, I had been trying out all of the Vietnamese restaurants in my area.”

If you think it’s the past-perfect-progressive, you are correct! As for which of the four meanings it is, I would say that it is the hot news meaning because the speaker probably just wants to tell the listener about what she was doing before the start of the pandemic.

In conclusion

Examining the roles of tenses and aspects separately may be a different way to explore English tenses than you are used to, however, I would like to stress that this way does not contradict, nor in any way conflict with how popular grammar books, such as Cambridge University Press’ English Grammar in Use, describe the meanings and uses of English tenses. To my way of thinking, however, when a student asks me to explain the difference between sentences such as, “I live in Germany” (a long-term situation) vs. “I’m living in Germany” (a temporary situation), the best answer that I can think of is to compare the different aspectual meanings. Likewise, when comparing two sentences that are both grammatically correct, e.g., “I cleaned my shoes” (a completed action) and “I have cleaned my shoes” (Hot news!), I think it makes perfect sense to highlight the different meanings due to the different aspects.

Lastly, I have one very simple reason why I think focusing on aspectual differences makes sense: learners don’t have problems with tenses. Even speakers of languages that are effectively tenseless, e.g., Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai, don’t have trouble differentiating between time periods (past – present – future), nor verb inflection that denote different periods of time. In other words, English learners have no trouble understanding the difference between I see/I saw, I am/I was, I do/I did; yet understanding when to use I do/I’m doing, I did/I have done, I did/I was doing, etc., is much harder.

I hope that you have found this article helpful in developing your knowledge of, and more importantly, your ability to use tenses with greater accuracy, and confidence.

If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you!

Homonyms

Synonyms, you’ve probably heard of. Synonyms are words that have similar meaning to each other. Sick and ill are synonyms, as are buy and purchase. Homonyms, on the other hand, are words that look or sound the same, but have different meanings.

The following words are homonyms of each other: to, too, and two. And despite being written differently, each word is pronounced the same: /ˈtü/. There are two types of homonyms: homophones and homographs. Homophones sound the same, and homographs are written the same. So, to, too, and two are in fact homophones in that they sound the same, but of course have different meanings. See if you can identify the three different meanings of the words pronounced /ˈtü/ in this sentence: “Christina wants to go to the concert and Alex does too.”

No doubt you realized that too means as well. But to, which appears twice, has a different meaning each time. The first to, “Christina wants to go…”, is the infinitive marker. English, as you probably remember, forms the full infinitive by putting to in front of the basic, or first, form of the verb, e.g., to eat, to go, to swim, and so on. But the second to is a preposition, “go to the concert,” which indicates where Christina wants to go.

So, to is both a homophone and a homograph. Too is also a homophone and a homograph, as in, “Christina went to two concerts last Saturday. I think that’s one too many, and Steve thinks so, too.”

There is a second type of homograph that I just want to mention briefly; words that are spelled alike, but pronounced differently, and of course have different meanings. The word row is a good example. There are two ways to pronounce row: /ˈrō/ and /ˈrau̇/. How is row pronounced in each of the following sentences?

  • There was a row of bushes in front of their house.
  • The people down the street had a terrible row yesterday. Everyone heard them.

As a student of English, homonyms may be a bigger deal than you realize. In the early stages of learning a foreign language we tend to spend a lot of time trying to memorize vocabulary that we consider useful for meeting our everyday communication needs. When you’re just getting started it’s important to be able to say things like, “What’s your name?”, “How much does this cost?”, and so on. But as time goes by, not only do we learn more words, we also learn more meanings for words that we already know. And some words, it turns out, have many different meanings.

Take the verb get, for instance, which is a very often used word in English. Get has many different meanings, in other words many homonyms. Here are the most important meanings: find, buy, collect/fetch, understand, reach, obtain, and the so called get passive, which replaces the verb to be in passive sentences. Compare the meanings of get in the following sentences. Can you think of a synonym to replace each instance of get?

  • The journey was so long. I couldn’t wait to get home!
  • Does anyone know where I can get some postage stamps around here?
  • Marie and Louis got married in 1962. Just imagine!
  • I’m afraid I’ll be 15 minutes late. I have to get my son from football practice.
  • I just don’t get what you’re trying to say.
  • I’ve never been in this part of town. Where do you suppose we can get lunch?

Homonyms are not often the cause of misunderstandings among native speakers since the meaning is usually clear from the context – though comedians often make use of words having multiple meanings in humorous ways. But as a learner of English, it might help you to bear in mind that, even if every word in a sentence is known to you, if the sentence doesn’t quite make sense, it may be because you have just met a new homonym.