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What is Collocation‏‎?

BFFThe more you use language, the more you realise that certain words tend to hang around together like best friends forever.

For example, if you have a decent knowledge of English you can probably guess the missing words here:

a foregone _____
_____ New Year!
a _____ guess

The fact of the matter is that some words always go around in groups; they’re like best friends who spend as much time as possible together. You don’t see one without expecting to see the other.

For example, you very rarely see this phrase:

Merry New Year!

Even though grammatically and semantically it is perfectly acceptable it just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t look or sound right. Instead, it has to have its best friend with it:

Happy New Year!

This informal linking of words is known as Collocation and we can say, for example, that happy collocates with new year: but merry doesn’t. Whenever you see new year hanging around, chances are that it’s with its old friend happy leaving merry out in the cold.

The Origin of Collocations

Generally speaking there are no grammatical rules which make collocations. It’s only through continued and everyday usage that these words and phrases have become linked.

For example, look at these examples:

I have to do my homework.
* I have to make my homework.

* an asterisk at the beginning denotes ungrammatical English

The words do and make can be very similar in meaning but it just so happens that when we talk about homework we do it rather than make it. Conversely:

* You need to do an effort if you want to succeed.
You need to make an effort if you want to succeed.

Why this difference? No reason; it just happens to be that way.

Collocation and TEFL

Collocation is incredibly important when you’re teaching English as a foreign language. You should actively encourage your class to look out for collocations when they look through different texts, for example.

In a way you can look at collocations as lexical chunks, that is set phrases and groups of words which can be taught and dealt with as a whole rather than broken down into individual words.

Let’s suppose your class have come across the unknown word bankrupt. Don’t teach the word in isolation but in context.

This is not the way to do it:

bankrupt means having many debts and not being able to pay

Certainly this explains what bankrupt means but the students have not seen how the word is most often used. Instead it would be better to place the word in context:

If you go bankrupt you have many debts and aren’t able to pay; in 1979 Marvin Gaye filed for bankruptcy and just a couple of years ago Blockbuster went bankrupt.

By emphasising the collocations the students now have the two most common collocations for the word. They haven’t just learnt the word bankrupt but also how to use it:

go/went/gone bankrupt
filed for bankruptcy

This will let them learn the word in context so they’re less likely to say

fall bankrupt
become bankrupt

or use some other collocation which doesn’t quite sound right.

Useful Links

Lexical Chunks – groups of words always found together

What is the Lexical Approach‏‎? – about teaching groups of words

Image © Suzanne_C_Walker

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