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Collocations - Further Information

This page may be of interest to advanced students and teachers.

"You shall know a word by the company it keeps"

 

J R Firth (British linguist, 1890-1960)

 

The "father" of collocation is usually considered to be J.R. Firth, a British linguist who died in 1960. It was he that first used the term "collocation" in its linguistic sense.

Some definitions:

  • to collocate (verb): to appear with another word more frequently than by chance - The word "white" collocates with "coffee".
  • collocation (noun): the combination of two or more words more frequently than by chance - Learning about collocation helps us speak more fluent English.
  • a collocation (noun): an example of collocation - "White coffee" is a collocation.

An easy way to remember the meaning of collocation: think of "col-" or "co-" (together) and "location" (place) = place together, locate together, go together

Note also (non-linguistic senses):

collocate (verb): place side by side or in relation

collocation (noun): the action of placing things side by side or in position

colocate/co-locate (verb): share a location or facility with someone or something

Strong and weak collocation

If we look deeper into collocations, we find that not only do the words "go together" but there is a degree of predictability in their association. Generally, in any collocation, one word will "call up" another word in the mind of a native speaker. In other words, if I give you one word, you can predict the other word, with varying degrees of success. This predictability is not 100%, but it is always much higher than with non-collocates.

The predictability may be strong: for example "auspicious" collocates with very few words, as in:

  • auspicious occasion
  • auspicious moment
  • auspicious event

Or the predictability may be weak: for example, "circuit" collocates with more than 20 words, as in:

circuit collocates left with...

CIRCUIT

circuit collocates right with...

racing

circuit

lecture

circuit

talk-show

circuit

short

circuit

closed

circuit

integrated

circuit

printed

circuit

printed

circuit

board

circuit

board

circuit

breaker

circuit

training

circuit

judge

Lexical and Grammatical Collocations

A distinction may if wished be made between lexical collocations and grammatical collocations.

A lexical collocation is a type of construction where a verb, noun, adjective or adverb forms a predictable connection with another word, as in:

  • Adverb + Adjective: completely satisfied (NOT downright satisfied)
  • Adjective + Noun: excruciating pain (NOT excruciating joy)
  • Noun + Verb: lions roar (NOT lions shout)
  • Verb + Noun: commit suicide (NOT undertake suicide)

A grammatical collocation is a type of construction where for example a verb or adjective must be followed by a particular preposition, or a noun must be followed by a particular form of the verb, as in:

  • Verb + Preposition: depend on (NOT depend of)
  • Adjective + Preposition: afraid of (NOT afraid at)
  • Noun + Particular form of verb: strength to lift it (not strength lifting it)

When is a collocation NOT a collocation?

The term "collocation" in its linguistic sense is relatively new (dating from the 1950s) and not all linguists agree on its definition. In fact there is considerable disagreement and even some confusion. Some linguists treat fixed phrases as extended collocations (as far as I'm concerned, not on your life, rather you than me, under the weather, if you've got the time). Others suggest that when a sequence of words is 100% predictable, and allows absolutely no change except possibly in tense, it is not helpful to treat it as a collocation. Such sequences they generally treat as fixed expressions ("prim and proper") or idioms ("kick the bucket").