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.

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