Center for Teaching and Learning

Strategies for enhancing English language fluency: Collocations

Collocations are collections of words that “fit together.”  In other words, they are predictable patterns and phrases or groups of words that we typically use together.

Collocations include what have traditionally been considered vocabulary items, as well as structural patterns which may seem closer to traditional grammar and combinations of words that simply “go together.” Idioms like “take a break,” structures like “If I had the chance, I would …” and word combinations like “get on the bus / get in the car” are all considered collocations.

Principles for learning collocations

We divided principles for learning collocations into two questions:

What are some characteristics of collocations?

Collocations can be described in a number of ways. One way of thinking about them is in terms of how “fixed” they are — in other words, the degree to which you can vary the basic pattern and still have a collocation.

  • very fixed collocation is one in which the pattern has very few expected variations. For example, the phrase “kick the bucket” is an idiom, a relatively fixed collocation meaning “to die.” While we could substitute nouns and verbs in this sentence and get other meaningful sentences (e.g. “kick the door,” “lift the bucket”), these combinations do not form the same cohesive patterns as “kick the bucket.”

Like “kick the bucket,” most collocations which are very fixed form a particular meaning rather than a structure.

  • Less fixed collocations are often more structural – common patterns that help structure a sentence but don’t carry as much specific meaning by themselves.
    For example: Let’s + verb directs an audience’s attention to a task, and then may use a preposition + noun to describe that specific task. Let’s + is a commonly used structural pattern into which you can insert a variety of words and still have commonly used patterns:

    • Let’s move on to the next point.
    • Let’s go back to the last chapter.
    • Let’s move away from this paragraph
    • Let’s look at tomorrow’s homework.
    • Let’s go on to the main point.

Although this is a less fixed collocation, there are still a limited number of words which will “fit” into this pattern. For example, we don’t typically say “Let’s go out of this paragraph.”

On the other hand, there are some less fixed collocations which are not as clearly structural. Words that are commonly used with other words are examples of less fixed collocations which are not as structural in nature. For example, we use “bus” and “car” only with certain sets of other words. We say “get on the bus,” but not “get in the bus.” However, we do say “get in the car.”  We say “take the bus” / “ride the bus” / “go there on the bus” but usually not “We can drive there on the bus.” However we do say “We can drive there in her car.”

It’s not important to be able to classify collocations according to their exact degree of fixedness. However, it probably is helpful to know that some collocations are more fixed than others: if you recognize a collocation as very fixed, you can learn it as one item; if you recognize it as less fixed, you understand that there’s a pattern there that you can use to build a collection of useful related phrases.

It’s also helpful to pay attention to how collocations relate to the context around them. In some cases, especially with structures and longer phrases, the use of a collocation depends very heavily on the situation in which it’s used. So for example, you probably wouldn’t greet the president of the company you work for by saying, “What’s up?” On the other hand, other collocations, like “get in the car” you can use almost anywhere.

What are the benefits of learning collocations?

Our brains tend to store language in chunks, rather than individual words. Thus, when we speak or write, it is more efficient for us to remember and use phrases as chunks rather than constructing them one word at a time. This increased efficiency promotes fluency.

Most fluent English speakers will unconsciously predict what is going to be said based on their own use of these phrases. This increases the efficiency with which they are able to listen or read. Thus, if a speaker or writer uses uncommon phrasing patterns, a native English speaker may find him or her harder to understand. Conversely, if a non-native speaker of English uses frequently used phrasing patterns, this may make it easier for native speakers to guess what the non-native speaker is saying and may help compensate for other language issues such as pronunciation.

Overall, familiarity with collocations and the resulting ability to make guesses about a speaker/writer’s speech should increase a multilingual speaker’s efficiency as a listener or reader.

Activities for practicing collocations

One way to learn collocations is to recognize the patterns within sentences. For example, read the sentences below and try to identify the words that might be the best fit in that sentence. The blanks represent one part of a collocation. Some of these collocations are more fixed than others, so in some cases, there might be several words that could be used in the blanks.

Example: He only sees his sister once in a _______________.

Almost every native speaker in the U.S. would almost immediately write either “while” or “blue moon” in the blank. The phrases “once in a while” and “once in a blue moon” are collocations, learned as chunks of language.

Now try the following sentences:

  1. She was excused for being late due to extenuating _________________.
  2. “Can you give me directions to the the freeway from here?” 
    “Yes, 45th Street is the next left. If you follow 45th for about a mile, you can __________________ the freeway there.”
  3. I need help. can you give me a _________________ with this?
  4. He volunteers so he can  _____________________ a difference in the lives of others.

Common answers: 1) circumstances 2) get on 3) hand 4) make