The ins and outs of collocations


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One of the joys of learning a language is that there is always room for improvement, in spite of your level. For example, by learning collocations. Increasing your knowledge in this area can have a major impact on the way you come across as an English speaker. 


major + impact is an example of two words that collocate, i.e. that sound natural together.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of collocations, let’s establish what they are.


Definition by Cambridge Dictionary

Collocation [Calso collocatea word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning:

In the phrase “a hard frost“, “hard” is a collocation of “frost” and “strong” would not sound natural


Crystal-clear! We don’t make a picture but take a picture. We brush our teeth, rather than wash our teeth.

Now, what type of collocations are there in terms of word combinations?

The examples I have set right before are of the type:

Verb + Noun

In the following paragraph, I am going to use several verb + noun collocations (written in bold).

If you want to captivate your audience when you give a presentation, tell them a story to capture their imagination. Pay attention to the details. Increase and slow down your pace. Try to create a lasting impression.

Notice how the collocation in Spanish would be “prestar atención” – Lend instead of pay.

Noun + Noun

This time the text illustrates noun+noun collocates.


Newspaper headlines today read the apologies given by the social network founder and chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg over the data breach that took place during the US election which led to Facebook users’ private data  being exploited by a political consultancy.

Where I have used bold, you could use a highlighter if you are reading in paper (or a notebook to jot down the collocates you find useful). When it comes to collocates, nothing can beat learning in context. 

Adjective + Noun

This time, we’ll focus on adjectives preceding nouns.

There is a strong chance that there will be heavy traffic in days to come. Large numbers of holidaymakers will be flooding the roads and severe traffic jams on strategic roads leading to popular destinations are bound to happen.

Notice how it wouldn’t be natural to swap the adjectives and say strong traffic or heavy chance. When in doubt, say the words out loud or in your head and trust your instinct. You can say fair hair, but have you ever heard of “fair beer” as referred to the colour? Pale or blonde, yes but if the word Fair stands next to beer it will mean that there is an event going on, a Fair.

Adverb + Adjective

And how can we provide more information about an adjective? By using an adverb beforehand. Make sure it sounds natural. Some examples:

When setting off on a backpacking trip to Eastern European countries in the 90s, we were fully aware of how reasonably priced the cost of life was at the time. In fact, as students striving to get by on part-time job wages, that was one of our main motivations. Yet, we were pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be ridiculously cheap prices in Youth Hostels. A dorm situated five minutes away from the remarkably beautiful Charles Bridge in Prague came to less than a euro. It was undoubtedly no-frills lodging but incredibly well located.

In this paragraph, adverbs modify adjectives. Some notes:

Perfectly aware could work here too, or either acutely or well.

Something can be both ridiculously cheap or ridiculously expensive.

Beautiful can be modified in the same way by all the adverbs that follow and thus avoid duller words like “really” or “very”: astonishingly, breathtakingly, dazzlingly, incredibly, staggeringly, startlingly, strikingly, stunningly, unbelievably, wonderfully. And more …

Verb + Adverb

Let’s turn to verb + adverb collocation now. 

How to attach an Ikea hook with a suction cup to a tiled surface.

Clean the area thoroughlyPress hard.Screw firmly and it is supposed to grip tightly to a smooth surface. Till it comes off…. in my experience. 

On the subject of verb + adverb collocates, here are some more examples in the form of language learning tips: listen carefully, read avidly, speak clearly, write extensively, think positively and study systematically.

Noun + Verb

To exemplify this word combination (noun + verb), I’ll make use of a selection of animal sounds:

Dogs bark

Cats purr

Cows moo

Sheep baa

Wolves howl                      

Birds and cicadas chirp

Hyenas laugh

Horses neigh

Bees buzz ….

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If you are serious about making collocations a part of your learning, take some of this advice:

·  Read extensively and intently. It will help you familiarize with collocations and pave the way for memorisation when you get down to studying

·        The same goes for listening.

·       Grab a copy of a self-study collocations book where you can put your knowledge to the test. I recommend:

English Collocations in Use Intermediate

(a downloadable free sample lesson is available)

English Collocations in Use Advanced

·      Map out a system in your notebook. Bear in mind if you prefer to keep collocations grouped according to their word format (noun-noun, adjective-noun… etc) or if you prefer to keep together collocations based on certain words or verbs by using spider graph or the like (as suggested in the blogpost about vocabulary).

·        While it is true that online dictionaries are free and useful, don’t discard buying a collocations one to keep on your desk or wherever it is handy. That will increase your chances of learning and raise the level of your written tasks. Oxford Collocations Dictionary is of the highest standard.

Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English 


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