What are collocations?

Apr 15, 2021
What is a collocation?

What is a collocation?

A collocation is a group of words that go together and sound natural to native speakers of English. Other word combinations may sound unnatural to native speakers of English. These words co-occur naturally together, and it is your job as an English learner to notice them early on in your learning journey.

What are chunks?

According to the dictionary, chunks are defined as connected items or words that can be stored or processed as a single concept. This means that these pairs/groups of words should be seen as one unit. We don’t separate the two words or learn them individually.


Natural vs unnatural collocations  

There are words that probably sound correct to you and actually are grammatically correct; however, they would sound unnatural to a native English speaker. It’s probably the same in your native language. 

Let’s take a look at some examples of natural word combinations that are common in the English language and at the unnatural ways to say them. 

  • have a meal (not take a meal)
  • fast food (not quick food)
  • do research (not make research)
  • do business (not make business)
  • a quick shower (not a fast shower)
  • have a party (not do a party)

Why collocations?

Your brain stores and recalls word chunks quickly.

I’ve tested this theory in my classroom. I’ve taught my students single words instead of collocations. It was hard for them to remember the words they had learnt. And when they tried using the words in their writing, they would sound unnatural. By learning collocations, your English will develop faster, and you will be able to remember more. 

Collocations sound natural to native speakers of English.

Native speakers of English acquired English by learning language chunks from the time they were babies, and it’s quite easy for them to notice unnatural language. When you learn collocations, it will be the same for you. You will notice if something doesn't sound or look quite right pretty quickly. 

Collocations help you produce natural English.

Students complain about their difficulties in forming a sentence or worry that their grammar is incorrect. They fear that they sound unnatural. If you feel you’re in the same boat, then start learning collocations, and you’ll soon see a difference in your fluency development. 

Collocations help you build a larger vocabulary bank.

Since collocations are easier to remember, you’ll be able to learn more vocabulary. Hence, your vocabulary bank will start to grow rapidly. Your brain loves pairs; it stores vocabulary in groups. When you learn single words, it’s harder to recall the words you’ve learnt.

Now that you’re familiar with collocations, how can you learn them successfully? 

Here are a few actions you can take:

Notice collocations

The easiest way to notice the target language is by grabbing a piece of text, e.g., a newspaper, and highlighting collocations that naturally appear together. You can use a dictionary to help you learn the meaning. I will talk more about collocation dictionaries and resources later. 

For more advanced learners, try to notice collocations that you see less frequent together. For example, instead of highlighting the often-seen collocation ‘big disappointment’, highlight the less common ‘huge disappointment’ instead.

Picture a Word and Its Friends Together

When you learn new words, don’t forget their friends. Words and their friends often hang out together. I want you to stop seeing them as individuals. They’re not loners. These friends like each other, so you’ll often see them chillin' together.

Bring Your Note-Taking to the Next Level

Most dictionaries will include a section to help you learn all the different ways to use a word. If your dictionary doesn't have that feature, look at the example sentences in the definition. Notice how the word is used in a sentence, and write the sentence down in your notebook. 

Read books

Reading is an excellent way to learn collocations in context. When you listen to someone speaking, it’s common for them to make mistakes, start again, etc. However, books have been edited and refined, and it will be easier for you to learn collocations more accurately. 

Review the Vocabulary Frequently

Once you’ve taken notes, make sure you review what you’ve written down regularly. I would say revising should be done at least four times a daywhen you wake up, just before you go to sleep and several times during the day. Have your vocabulary notebook with you at all times so that whenever you’re waiting to see the doctor, waiting for a meeting to start, or enjoying free time, you can quickly have a look.

Practise Using Collocations As Much As Possible

When you learn new collocations, do your best to use them as much as you can. You might find it hard at first, but eventually, it will feel natural, and you’ll be able to use them without thinking. 

You might be thinking ‘I can’t do that, ‘That sounds incredibly hard’ or ‘I’ll make a ton of mistakes. And that’s okay. I’m giving you permission to make mistakes (Not that you need it). Start using the collocations even if you speak slowly. 

Learn Collocations by Topic or by a Specific Word

Do you enjoy food? Then start learning collocations on the topic of food. Start with topics you like. Eventually, all the collocations you learn can be used to discuss other topics anyway. So start with a subject you find interesting. The words will be easier for you to remember and help you enjoy the journey of learning collocations.

Types of collocations

There are many types of collocations. If this is your first time reading about collocations, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on this section. Come back to it when you’re much more comfortable with the idea of collocations. Let’s take a look at the most common types of collocations and some examples. 

  • adjective + noun: small population 
  • verb + noun: make a generalisation 
  • noun + noun: a ballet teacher
  • noun + verb: a bird sings 
  • verb + adverb: whispered softly
  • adverb + adjective: highly sophisticated 
  • verb + prepositional phrase: burst into tears 

Online Collocations Dictionaries

If you’ve read up until this point, you most likely understand how important collocations are to help you develop natural English. The first tool you’re going to need is an online dictionary. I have a few favourites, but most good dictionaries have a section for collocations. Here are two of my favourite free online dictionaries to start you off.