English Learner Article Collocations & Word Partnerships

Summary: A look at the different types of collocations in English

By: |Audience: All|Category: English Grammar Usage Articles & Notes


In general, collocation is placing words together in a determined order. Collocations are thus the relationship between two words or groups of words that often go together and form a partnership. Two or more words become glued together implying a proper order which make it easy for speakers of L1 to predict what comes next once they have heard the first one. Collocations are learnt through large amounts of reading input. It involves the choice of the right words in the right order. Personally I term "collocations" or "word partnerships" a Catholic wedding because there is no divorce. We don't have any rules as to why certain words go together or behave that way. There are even no explanations either. As in real life we need to find the right partner otherwise life is hell. I hope linguistics will provide some help one day as they are sometimes annoying because they are unpredictable for a lot of learners of English. On the other hand collocations are like making predictions i.e. projecting forward to what we are about to read or to say. This contrasts with memory when our mind refers back to what we have already read or said. May be that's why collocations exist. It has to do with memory and predictions i.e. past and future. On the Internet, this term (often spelt "co-location") is used to mean the provision of space for a customer's telecommunications equipment on the service provider's premises.

Types of collocations and labelling

Partnerships or collocations are of different types. Sometimes other names are given for grammatical reasons: idioms, compound adjectives: Off-peak, compound nouns (noun + noun: sunglasses, baby-sitter (verb + preposition): turnover, cutback), Phrasal verbs: give up. There are also other partnerships which people label binomials: rough and ready, sooner or later, odds and ends, by and large, done and dusted. There are sometimes even trinomials. Collocation data shows that the mutual information score for the words “heavy” and “smoker”' is much higher than the score “strong” and “smoker”.

This type of labelling is unfortunately not very useful. Such words no matter what parts of speech they are ought to be labelled "word partnerships" or "collocations". As the word collocation is nothing but made up of two parts: "co" meaning "with" and "location" i.e. occur in the same place. But grammar and vocabulary labelling as with other phenomena in life are often confusing or even misleading.

Collocation clash

There is a collocation clash when words are placed together which should not occur together, according to the rules or usage of a particular language. Languages have their own systems and concepts and collocations are part of that individual system. A collocation clash occurs when there is some semantic or pragmatic incompatibility between the words. Consequently it is important to raise awareness of finding the right partner and that a right partner in one language doesn't necessarily mean it can be applied to another even if they are genetically related. Translators too need to be aware of these linguistic partnerships and clashes.

The following are typically collocation clashes in English but could be the right partners in other languages:

She is making holiday (going on holiday, spending holiday).

She is getting a baby (having a baby).

Collocation clashes sometimes occur in English Bible versions:

ISV Luke 21.15 "for I will give you speech and wisdom": It is appropriate in English to collocate "give" and "wisdom". But in English the verb "give" does not collocate with the noun object "speech". To properly express the meaning of "give speech", a translator needs to find a synonym for "speech", which will collocate properly, according to English grammar ("give" and "words", a synonym for "speech", collocate for some speakers of English, and this happens to be the collocation used in the NIV, TEV, GW, and NRSV).

Lexical approach

Almost all good dictionaries give collocations. There are also dictionaries of collocations. The Lexical Approach focuses on lexis and therefore collocation rather than the more traditional grammar first. Learning collocations leads to an increase in written and spoken fluency.

Copyright © 2005

Permission to print on-line has been granted to UsingEnglish.com.


Latest from 'English Grammar Usage Articles & Notes'

Phrasal Verbs Multi-Word Verbs

Read More »