A Lesson In Collocation


Hi everyone.  My name is Adam and I am the principal of the Gold Coast campus.  In my role as principal, I unfortunately don’t get to spend much time in the classroom teaching, which is something I really miss!!

In this blog, I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about one of my favourite things to teach and help students with!  I want to talk about the beautiful subject of collocation.  (I’ve tried to include as much collocation expressions in this blog to show you how it works in language).

For those of you who are reading this and have studied at Langports, you’ll probably instantly recognise this word, and hopefully, you’re still continuing your journey of studying collocation and using it as much as possible in your speaking and writing.  But, surprisingly, for many other students, the word ‘collocation’ is new and something they’ve never heard of or studied before.  If this is you, don’t worry; it’s not your fault!  Unfortunately, collocation is often overlooked in the classroom and not given much attention in textbooks.  For this reason, I want to share with you the importance of studying collocation and making it a part of your everyday study efforts.  The more collocation you add to your range, the better your English sounds, and most importantly, the more native sounding you become!  After all, this is no doubt one of your biggest goals when it comes to English.

Have you reached the ‘intermediate plateau? Have you been studying grammar for a long time and now feeling bored when you pull out your grammar textbook and feel that you’ve already studied those chapters many times before? If this sounds like you, you’re not alone.  Most, if not all, students reach a point in their English language journey called the ‘intermediate plateau’. This is the point where you think you have stopped learning and as result you have started to lose motivation and the inner desire to study.  To help with this, as well as with your goal to sound like a native speaker, I again bring your focus back to ‘collocation’.  When teaching, I often tell my students that the difference between a native speaker and a student who can use good English isn’t grammar, nor is it pronunciation or intonation, nor is it the ability to speak quickly.  What is it?  It’s collocation!

Collocation is what helps you move beyond the intermediate plateau and helps you get to the next level, and be able to express yourself more clearly, concisely and accurately., or better still, more like a native speaker! Collocation is when we learn words in chunks and think about how the word works within certain structure. Collocation works together with grammar; they are interdependent of each other. You cannot apply your grammar knowledge without understanding or using collocation and vice versa. Collocation is a means of expanding your grammar and lexical (use of words and expressions, etc.) range to the next level.   Collocation applies to all areas of language use (lexical range, grammar, speaking, listening, reading and writing), and the more you become aware of it and especially the more you read it, and hear it, the more you notice it and it starts to become a part of your own language.

Simply defined, collocation is about learning words in “chunks”.  It is the way words combine in a language to make natural-sounding speech and writing.  For example, in English, we say strong wind but heavy rain.  It would not be normal to say heavy wind or strong rain. And, whilst all four of these words would be easily recognised by a student at pre-intermediate level, it takes a greater degree of language ability with English to combine them correctly in productive use.  To a native speaker, these combinations are highly predictable (very easy and common); to a student they are anything but!

Collocation, the combination of words, covers a wide range, from the totally free — see hope / a problem / one’s point — to the totally fixed and idiomatic — not to see the wood for the trees.  This idiom is not only fixed in form, but it also has nothing whatsoever to do with wood or trees (check your advanced learner’s dictionary for the definition of this idiom).  As you’ll quickly notice, between the two extremes of fixed idiomatic expressions and the range of nouns that take the verb see, some are quite easy to understand and some are really challenging for a student to make sense of — oops, another expression — understand.  Collocations can start at the really simple point such as see a movie (which lower level students learn as a ‘chunk’ without thinking about it, to the medium level see a doctor to the much higher difficulty level of see danger / reason / the point.  All of these combinations are collocation!  And it is combinations such as these, particularly in the ‘medium’ level area, which are essential to communicative competence in English.

Collocation runs through the whole of the English language.  No piece of natural spoken or written English is totally free of collocation.  For you, choosing the right collocation will make your speech and writing sound much more natural, more native-speaker like, even if you happen to make a slight grammar mistake!  A student who talks about strong snow may make himself understood, but possibly not without getting a smile or even a correction, which may or may not matter.  He will certainly lose marks for it in an exam.

Although most students have never heard of collocation before, they already know some very simple collocations which they have learnt previously in general English courses such as do, make, have, bring, take and give.   The main goal of my blog entry is to encourage you to learn beyond the collocations that everyone knows and use and think about collocations which native speakers are more inclined to use.   After all, this kind of language is what a native speaker uses and does automatically.

I can write forever about the importance of collocation and the particular areas that you should focus on.  But, I don’t want to make you fall asleep or start running for the hills (run away).  So, to keep it simple for now, I suggest you focus on the four most common collocations, which I believe that all students should be familiar with:

1.            verb + noun

2.            verb + preposition

3.            adjective + noun

4.            adverb + adjective

5.            fixed expressions


A good way to introduce the concept of collocation is to touch on make, do, give, have, and bring, etc. – simple collocation you learnt at beginner to intermediate level in your general English course.  By starting with these verb + noun combinations, you will quickly realise these are basic collocations, that it’s difficult to explain why we use make and not do, and that we can’t break collocation rules.  Learn those ever-challenging prepositions in chunks, increase your range of adjectives — instead of overusing simple adjectives like good and nice, try saying a brilliant idea instead of good idea, or a superb example instead of nice example.  I could write forever on the possible combinations, but again focus on the above list of five areas.  Here are some examples of these five types of combinations.

1.    Verb + Noun  

Encourage / increaseparticipation
Come up with / produce/ dream up / hit onidea
Give / lay / place / put / shiftemphasis

2.    Verb + Preposition


3.    Adjective + Noun

Everyday Collocations

Nice (good)AwesomeAmazing



Higher level / academic Collocation



4.         Adverb + Adjective

Everyday Collocation



Higher level / academic Collocation



5.    Idiomatic / fixed expressions

Not see the wood for the trees
Come up against a brick wall
Lend someone a hand


How can you study of all this?  Get yourself an Oxford Collocation dictionary.  This is a must study tool / book for students. This superb dictionary will help you learn lots of the word combinations I’ve just talked about…and lots, lots, more. This dictionary is perfect if you want to get to the next level, and be able to express yourself more clearly, concisely and accurately., or better still, more like a native speaker!

Are you preparing for an English proficiency exam or thinking about taking one? If so, you will definitely be tested in exams such as Cambridge (CAE, FCE), TOEIC and IELTS on your ability to form natural collocations! While some collocations are used every day, there are some combinations which are used more in a formal or academic context.  Knowing these combinations and their level of formality will give you the ability to communicate on par with native speakers in an informal, formal, academic or business situation.

So, hopefully, my blog has introduced you (or reminded you) of the importance of collocation.  If you want to get to the ‘next’ level and sound more native-like in both your spoken and written English, study collocation!  Read it, write it, speak it — use it.  You simply can’t go wrong with excellent collocation mixed up with some great grammar.  Happy studies everyone!