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Collocation: Fixed combinations
by Luke Prodromou

• What is collocation?
• Why is collocation important?
• Fixed phrases
• Idioms
• Phrasal verbs
• Next in the series

What is collocation?

Why do we say 'to do your homework' and not 'to make your homework'? And why do we go somewhere 'by car' or 'by train' but 'on foot'? The reason is 'collocation'. Collocation means the way that words form predictable relationships with other words. Knowing the 'meaning' of a word is not only knowing its dictionary definition but also knowing the kind of words with which it is often associated.

We say, for example, 'take a look' and 'have a look' but not 'make a look' or 'get a look'. There is no reason or rule that tells us why we use some words with 'look' but not others. Looking up the meaning of take or have in the dictionary won't help us find the answer. Collocations, either fixed or more flexible, are the result of many years of habitual use by fluent speakers of the language.


Why is collocation important?

Collocation is important because:

it makes speech sound natural and alive
it provides 'chunks' of English that are ready to use
it saves us a lot of time and effort when we are trying to express ourselves

This article gives you examples of the main kinds of collocation, and some ideas about how to improve your ability to use collocation.

In the case of grammar, once we know the rules we can make new correct sentences all the time, simply by 'slotting in' new vocabulary in the right places. But with collocation, there are limits to the changes we can make to a combination of words. In some cases those limits can be very strict, but in others there is more freedom to choose which words can go together.

A collocation may consist of two or more words. Look at this example:

Last year, we spent our summer holiday in Oxford.

This sentence is made up of nine separate words, but if we look more carefully we can identify four groups of words or 'collocations':

last + year — we can also say 'last summer/last night/last week' or 'next year/this year/every year'. But we cannot say 'last hour' or 'past summer'.
spend + holiday — we can also say 'spend a week/a month/the winter'. But we cannot say 'pass our holidays'.
summer + holiday — we can also say 'winter holiday/skiing holiday/walking holiday' and so on.
in + Oxford — we often use the preposition in with the names of towns and countries. If you say that you spent time 'at Oxford' the meaning changes completely. You mean that you studied at the university!

So when we are learning English, it is not enough to know the meaning of words like spend and pass on their own — the meanings of such words may be similar, but the way that they combine with other words may be very different.


Fixed phrases

The relationship between two or more words can be very close. For example, the word kith is never seen anywhere but in the company of kin, in the phrase 'kith and kin' (a rather old-fashioned way of referring to your relatives). Kin, however, also appears with next in 'next of kin'. But both words have very little freedom to combine with other words in English. If you learn these words, it is best to learn them together, as fixed phrases. Other words that form strong partnerships like this are: ajar (she left the door ajar — which means 'she left the door open') and amends (she was sorry for what she had done and decided to make amends — which means 'she decided to try to make the situation better').



Many idioms in English are examples of strong collocations. There is very little, if any, room for changing the words that make up expressions such as the following:

under the weather
lose face
spill the beans

Sometimes we can guess the meaning of an idiom if we understand all the individual words that it is formed from. But in many cases, this is not possible. For example, it is difficult to see why 'spill the beans' should mean 'to give away secret information'. The words and grammar that make up these idioms are almost impossible to change, without changing the meaning. We cannot say 'on top of the weather' (but we can say 'on top of the world'). We cannot say 'find face' or 'lose faces' (but we can say 'save face') and 'spill the peas' is not an idiomatic expression. A small error in the use of these fixed collocations makes a big difference to their meaning — and will often make them meaningless.


Phrasal verbs

A special feature of English which is not found in many other languages is the use of combinations of verb + adverb or preposition (particle). These combinations are known as phrasal verbs: pick up, take up, bump into, set off, put up with.

Phrasal verbs are very common in English and many verbs combine with several different particles. Like other verbs, they also have particular 'friends':

take up + an offer/a job/a hobby
pick sb up + from the airport/in your car/at midday
run into + difficulties/an old friend

Thus, there are two layers of collocation to get right if we want to use phrasal verbs correctly. First, we have to choose the correct particle to go with the verb, and then we have to choose the right kind of word or phrase to express the meaning we want.

A final point about word order: changing the position of the particle in a phrasal verb can have a major effect on the meaning. Compare She couldn’t get over the message (She was very surprised by it) and She couldn’t get the message over (She couldn’t make other people understand it).


Next in the series

In the next issue we will return to collocation and focus on less fixed expressions ('verb + noun' and other grammatical combinations) and functional expressions. The article will also give advice on learning collocations.