Heavy traffic and prompting speculation: the importance of collocation

Chaiyaporn Baokaew / Moment / GettyImages

by Liz Walter

For students who want to make their English as natural as possible, concentrating on collocation – the way words go together – is probably the most important thing they can do. Studies of non-native English speakers show they use simple words such as ‘bad’, ‘start’ or ‘make’ more often than first-language English speakers do. This isn’t surprising – it’s natural to learn the simplest, most common words of a language first. But one of the best ways to take your English to a more advanced level is to learn new words together with their ‘word partners’ – the words that often go with them.

Often, these collocations aren’t easy to predict. For example, you might not be able to guess that we say heavy traffic to describe a lot of traffic. Similarly, a heavy smoker is someone who smokes a lot – not a smoker who needs to lose weight! These are examples of adjective + noun collocations. A few other examples are glaring errors (very bad and obvious errors), juicy gossip (very interesting gossip), rolling hills (hills with gentle curves) and wild accusations (extreme accusations that are not based on facts).

There are other common collocation types, such as verb + noun collocations. Many of you will already know that people commit crimes instead of ‘do’ crimes or ‘make’ crimes. Sometimes verb + noun collocations use more advanced English, and so it is much more impressive to use a great collocation. For example, something might ‘cause speculation’ or ‘be a challenge’, but your English will sound much more impressive if you can say that something prompts speculation or poses a challenge.

Look out for adverb + adjective collocations too. There are several combinations used for emphasis, such as bitterly disappointed or blindingly obvious. Sometimes these collocations add emphasis by highlighting the meaning of the adjective, as in freely available (easy to get), and sometimes they limit the meaning of the adjective, as in vaguely aware (aware but not clearly).

Try to get into the habit of thinking about collocation whenever you learn a new word. For instance, if you learn a noun, ask yourself, ‘What verb do I need to use this noun?’ or ‘Which adjectives typically describe this noun?’ A good learner’s dictionaries, such as the one on this site, will give a lot of help with collocation. When you look up a word, look at the example sentences. Any parts in bold type are typical collocations, and therefore worth learning. I intend to write more about collocation over the next few weeks – do let me know if there are any particular areas you would like me to cover.

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