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Explaining meaning: collocation

August 05, 2008

Hello again,

The most common question an ESL student asks the teacher is "what does X mean?" The teacher is often lured into the trap of attempting an on-the-spot explanation. In fact the question is impossible to answer unless a whole welter of supporting information is gathered. Meaning is affected by a range of grammatical and referential influences...

...of which collocation is but one.

Collocation is the tendency of words to co-exist. At its simplest it is a predictable association of words that naturally fall together in certain contexts such as 'cup of tea' or 'bread and butter'. However, on a more deeply erratic and idiomatic level, it demands that one word is used rather than another in particular contexts and this idiomatic quality often defies any obvious logic and is thus very difficult for non-native speakers to predict - e.g. a roaring trade, donkeys' years, in the nick of time.

One of the characteristics of the way words collocate is that a word in frequent use may often combine with one which is much less widely used. For this reason, many course books, whose selection of lexical material is guided by such criteria as frequency or coverage, are likely to neglect some of the most idiomatic collocations. Native speakers who might under other circumstances never use the rarer element of the collocation, nevertheless have no difficulty in producing the usual phrase, whereas non-native learners will have little guidance in predicting such combinations. Examples of this are:
next of kin; run amok; torn asunder; by the skin of his teeth.

However, quite apart from the idiosyncratic nature of many of the collocations in common use, this feature of vocabulary accounts for the choice of words made by native speakers. For example, a common collocation used by learners is 'the amount of crime'. In terms of meaning, there would appear nothing to prevent this combination. Native speakers are, however, much more likely to talk about the 'rate' or perhaps the 'level' of crime. One collocation which seems to enjoy currency is 'train station' as opposed to 'railway station' and I suspect this is a case of a non-native speaker combination actually taking over from the idiomatically correct one. Inexperienced teachers tend to try to explain these matters in terms of nuance of meaning and consequently tie themselves into inextricable knots.

One effect of collocation on meaning is that particular combinations may tip a word towards, for example, being pejorative when the word alone may seem neutral. An example of this is 'element'. Taken out of context this does not appear to carry overtones of any kind of emotion, but combined in such phrases as 'hooligan element', 'fringe element', ' feminist element' it immediately takes on a disapproving tinge.

From some of the examples given above, it should be clear that collocations have a varying degree of closeness of association. At one extreme, there are those phrases that are unvarying in their combination. Idioms are an example of this type of collocation because their form is frozen, no other word can be substituted for any of the elements. In addition, the meaning of the overall expression is often different from the sum of its individual parts and frequently involves metaphorical meaning: 'the lion's share', 'a pain in the neck', 'a fly in the ointment'. Such idioms may also shade into proverbs and proverbs provide a useful entry into this subject for foreign learners. If we take a common idiom/proverb such 'a watched pot never boils' (it is difficult ostensibly to predict the collocation 'watched pot'), we might well find that the learner's own language has an equivalent expression (cf. French 'une marmite surveillÊe ne bout jaimais'). Finding points of comparison in this way helps learners to understand this aspect of language more easily.

Another type of closed collocation is the formulaic utterance which is used in very specific contexts. Examples of these are 'once upon a time' , 'suffice it to say', 'unaccustomed as I am', 'be upstanding in court,' 'time, gentlemen, please'. A characteristic of these formulae is that they allow us to predict the situation in which they will occur.

A less fixed form of collocation is seen in such combinations as 'heavy rain', 'uphill battle', 'pay attention'. In examples of this kind one or other element may be substituted by a synonym:
'heavy downpour', 'uphill struggle', 'pay heed'.

Another kind of collocation is more accurately described as 'colligation' in which there is a relationship between the grammatical form of a word and the meaning in a particular combination. In the example previously mentioned, 'hooligan element' there is an inherent disapproval of that particular group. If we take the phrase 'an element of hooliganism' the emphasis has shifted to suggest that there was only an insignificant amount of anti-social behavior. The difference lies in the combination of an adjectival noun with the word 'element'. Similarly we can compare the phrase 'way back' (a long time ago) to 'back way' (back entrance).

Language studies in the nineties have focused much more on the lexical element of grammar than on structure, function or pragmatics. The concept of 'chunking' illustrates the way in which we acquire the lexical component of our native language in prefabricated phrases (Nattinger and DeCarrico,1992, p.xv) rather than through individual words. Learners of a second language need to 'rediscover' this facility if they are to cope with collocation and it effects. If learners are introduced to this feature of vocabulary at an early stage they will be more readily able to accept it and recognize it than if it is left to later stages of their development.

Implications for the Classroom

Learners need to be aware:
a) that meaning derives not only from the relationship of a word to the external feature it denotes but from the way it combines with other words within the sentence;
b) of the need to record collocations as discrete lexical items and not try to learn vocabulary word by word. This can be done from the very start of their language learning when they meet such collocations as a loaf of bread, a packet of cigarettes, a bar of soap, a pair of socks.;
c) authentic texts are more likely to contain useful collocations than specially constructed texts;
d) training is needed on how to spot a collocation or a cluster and determine its boundaries.

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  1. valerie gilardi Says:

    Wow, That explanation on collocations was just so excellent as I understand precisely this dilema. Thank you for putting energy into sharing this concept. Sincerely, Valerie

  1. Baba Says:

    i see that this is an appropriate article for teachers of ESL, etc. but most initial teaching is done by teachers who don't have adequate command of the language themselves therefore, it is hard for them to explain meaning in terms of collocations. here, in anglophone Africa a radical new approach should be adopted towards the whole question of teaching ESL, especially teaching meaning.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:


    Well, I can see you have a problem if your teachers are themselves not proficient in the language they teach. I have no solutions I fear.
    My concept of a teacher is of somebody who not only has an in-depth subject knowledge but who can also understand effective learning and teaching strategies. If your teachers lack these fundamentals then I am not sure how they expect to be able to teach. There is no "radical new approach". Teachers have to know their subject and have to be able to deliver effective lessons. No "new approach" can recompense for the ignorance of teachers.

  1. Bill Bartmann Says:

    Hey good stuff...keep up the good work! :)

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