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Collocations

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Collocations

Collocations are an integral part of written and spoken speech in every language. They can be easily identified by native speakers and it is this recognisability, in fact, that makes a collocation a collocation.

In this article, we're going to grab a peek ... erm, I mean ... take a look at collocations, including how we can identify and use them.

Collocation meaning

Collocations are combinations of words in a sentence. Think of a collocation as a relationship between a pair (or small group) of words. Some collocations (such as 'take a look') are typical: this means that the words combine in a way that feels natural or “correct”. Other collocations (such as 'grab a peek') are untypical: this means that the words do not go together naturally and therefore often sound strange, or “incorrect”.

An easy way to understand what collocations are is to look at your list of household chores or the weather forecast:

When doing household chores you 'make the bed' and 'do the dishes'; you don't 'do the bed' or 'make the dishes'. So, 'make the bed' and 'do the dishes' are typical collocations, and 'do the bed' and 'make the dishes' are untypical collocations.

The weather forecast might predict 'heavy showers' and 'strong winds', but very rarely would the report warn of 'strong showers' or 'heavy winds'. So, 'heavy showers' and 'strong winds' are typical collocations, and 'strong showers' and 'heavy winds' are untypical collocations.

If somebody used an untypical collocation such as 'strong showers', although in some cases you may understand what is meant, the word combinations are not as common or natural-sounding as typical collocations. See the table below for a direct comparison:

Typical collocations

Untypical collocations

Make the bed

Do the bed

Do the dishes

Make the dishes

Heavy showers

Strong showers

Strong wind

Heavy wind

Typical collocations feel natural to native English speakers because they are common; we hear these combinations time and time again. There is often no logic as to why these words belong together - some collocations just feel right.

For people who are learning English, collocations can be confusing because they rely on familiarity. It's very hard to explain why, for example, a burger is known as 'fast food' rather than 'quick food' - 'fast food' just feels right simply because, to many of us, it is a familiar combination of words. Similarly, 'fork and knife' don't feel quite right, whereas 'knife and fork' do - the order of the words is more fixed in typical English use, and so it is a more typical collocation.

Collocations French Fries StudySmarterQuick food? pixabay

Tip: Although we've classified collocations as 'typical', and 'untypical', some people refer to them as 'natural' or 'unnatural'. People sometimes rate collocations on a scale between 'fluid' and 'fixed', depending on how commonly used they are in the English language. The important thing to remember is that some collocations are more familiar, and therefore more natural-sounding than others.

Collocation types and examples

In this section, we will cover 6 common types of collocation. Remember, collocations are not limited to these types, however, if we were to look at every possible word combination that could form a collocation, we'd be here all day! The examples we've picked are enough to give you a good idea of how different types of collocations work.

Adjective + noun collocations

'I had a high temperature so I sat down with a tall glass of water.'

In the above sentence, the adjectives 'high' and 'tall' often have similar meanings, so let's see what happens if we swap them around:

'I had a tall temperature so I sat down with a high glass of water.'

It just doesn't sound as natural as the previous example as these adjective + noun combinations are not common or familiar enough to be typical collocations. Therefore, 'tall temperature' and 'high glass of water' are untypical collocations.

Other typical adjective+noun collocations include:

  • Strong coffee

  • A hearty meal

  • Drastic change

  • A bright future

Adverb + adjective collocations

'After cycling through the rain, I arrived soaking wet.'

This phrase is a typical collocation as it sounds natural and familiar. However, let's say we were to change the adverb:

'After cycling through the rain, I arrived soggy wet.'

This is an untypical collocation, as although the meaning of the phrase may still be understandable, the words don't fit together quite as naturally.

Other typical averb+adjective collocations include:

  • Slightly late

  • Filthy rich

  • Highly intelligent

  • Ridiculously expensive

Noun + noun collocations

Below are some examples of typical noun + noun collocations. Note the connecting words (such as "and" and "of") that join the collocating nouns.

  • Flash of lightning
  • A sense of achievement
  • Safe and sound
  • Pros and cons

Collective nouns can also be classed as noun + noun collocations.

  • A bunch of flowers
  • A pride of lions
  • A troupe of actors
  • A murder of crows

Many noun + noun collocations come in the form of compound nouns (a noun that is made up of two or more existing words that, when placed together, form a new meaning).

  • Board game
  • Hunger pangs
  • Comfort food
  • Carpet burn

Verb + noun collocations

Certain verbs and nouns seem to belong together, whereas others don't. Although 'gain money' and 'make speed' can be understood, they are untypical collocations. 'Make money' and 'gain speed', on the other hand, are typical verb + noun collocations.

Other typical verb + noun collocations include:

  • Break the silence

  • Waste time

  • Have a laugh

  • Pay attention

Verb + prepositional phrase collocations

The title of this one may sound confusing, but don't worry, you use these types of collocations all the time in everyday language.

A preposition is just a word that indicates the relationship between a noun and something else, such as a time, place or location. A prepositional phrase is a phrase containing a preposition and its object noun.

Here are three prepositional phrases. The preposition is marked in bold:

  • 'He's behind you''

  • 'It came from outer space''

  • 'I'll meet you at 7 pm.'

Typical verb + prepositional phrase collocations include:

  • Listening to the radio

  • Brimming with joy

  • Falling in love

  • Paying for shopping

Verb + adverb collocations

As with the other examples of collocations, some verbs and adverbs are natural fits for each other. 'Aimlessly wander', for example, is a stronger collocation than 'pointlessly wander'.

Other typical verb + adverb collocations include:

  • Openly admit

  • Deeply regret

  • Strongly agree

  • Softly whisper

Why are collocations in English important?

Collocations are important because certain word combinations (typical collocations) feel natural within the English language; these natural-sounding collocations are unlikely to distract the reader or listener as they should sound familiar. Untypical collocations, however, can feel awkward and clunky and can, therefore, interrupt the flow of speech or a piece of writing.

Of course, when it comes to creative writing, you might want a phrase to sound jarring or unnatural to create a certain effect. In this case, you could deliberately use untypical or unusual collocations - think of the bizarre phrasing in works from writers such as Lewis Carroll or William S. Burroughs for example. For more information on this, see our article on foregrounding.

'The time has come,' the walrus said, 'to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships - and sealing wax - of cabbages and kings'

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Wikipedia

Collocations - key takeaways

  • Collocations are combinations of words in a sentence. In other words, a collocation is a relationship between a pair (or a small group) of words.
  • Typical collocations are commonly-used; they are familiar and 'feel' natural to speakers of the English language. Untypical collocations 'feel' less natural - they often sound strange, or 'incorrect'.
  • In many typical collocations, the order of the words is fixed. Examples of fixed phrases include 'knife and fork', and 'to and fro'. You do not often hear the term, 'fork and knife', and you would practically never hear the term 'fro and to' in natural English, as it sounds completely 'wrong'.
  • Untypical collocations can sound unnatural or jarring. Many creative writers use untypical collocations deliberately to create a certain effect.

Frequently Asked Questions about Collocations

Collocations are combinations of words in a sentence. In other words, a collocation is a relationship between a pair or small group of words. Some collocations are more typical than others – the more commonly-used and familiar a collocation is, the more natural it is likely to sound.

Collocations can affect grammar, but often they are more important for the “feel” of a sentence. Untypical collocations are not necessarily grammatically incorrect, for example, “there is heavy wind outside”. This phrase, though grammatically correct, feels unnatural because of the combination of the words “heavy” and “wind”.

To use a collocations dictionary, such as the Oxford Collocations Dictionary, you look up a word (usually a noun, adjective or verb) to find other words that typically collocate with it in natural English, along with example sentences. Collocations dictionaries are especially helpful for people who are learning the English language.

Final Collocations Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes collocation?

Show answer

Answer

The relationship between words and how naturally they combine.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the most typical collocation?

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Answer

Fish and chips.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the most typical collocation?

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Answer

I’m looking forward to my birthday.

Show question

Question

True or false?


If a collocation is untypical, then it sounds 'correct'.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Collocations never involve nouns.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Untypical collocations can sound unnatural or jarring.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an adjective + noun collocation?

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Answer

Bitter pill.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of a noun + noun collocation?

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Answer

A round of applause.

Show question

Question

Collocations rely on familiarity.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Why do collocations matter?

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Answer

Because certain word combinations feel more natural than others.

Show question

Question

Sometimes writers deliberately use untypical or unusual collocations for effect.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Collocations are easy to understand if you’ve just started learning the English language.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

How else could you describe an 'untypical'  collocation?

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Answer

Unnatural.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an adverb + adjective collocation?

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Answer

Perfectly normal.

Show question

Question

FIll in the blank:


A preposition is a word that indicates the relationship between a ______ and something else.

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Answer

noun

Show question

Question

What are the two types of collocations?

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Answer

Typical and untypical

Show question

Question

True or false?


Typical collocations sound unnatural.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Typical collocations sound ___________.

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Answer

correct

Show question

Question

Untypical collocations sound ___________.

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Answer

incorrect

Show question

Question

Untypical collocations feel more _________.

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Answer

unnatural

Show question

Question

Typical collocations feel more _______.

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Answer

natural

Show question

Question

Which type of collocation is the following?


Make the bed.

Show answer

Answer

Typical collocation 

Show question

Question

Which type of collocation is the following?


Make the dishes.

Show answer

Answer

Untypical collocation

Show question

Question

Typical collocations feel natural to ___________ English speakers.

Show answer

Answer

native

Show question

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