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.

44 thoughts on “Heavy traffic and prompting speculation: the importance of collocation

  1. Ken. S.L.

    Some of the ‘ collocations ‘, may come accross as being ‘ oxymoronic ‘.
    Case in point : A recent review of ‘ a budding author ‘, wherein he wrote the following;
    “She left the kitchen with a pair of tall plastic glasses in hand, which contained frozen effervescent bubbles ”
    When I pointed out to him that, plastic glasses and frozen effervescent, were oxymoronic, he got defensive.

    Any thoughts on the above ?.

    Ken. S.L.

    1. Aparnna

      Very helpful one. Please do blogs on collocations useful in narrating experiences about; job,medical,travel,place and relationships.

      1. Eleni

        Could you please write a blog with collocations used when dealing with public services., local councils etc. For example collocations with, apply, register, license etc. Thank you.

  2. Silverlion

    Some of the ‘ collocations ‘, may come accross as being ‘ oxymoronic ‘.
    Case in point : A recent review of ‘ a budding author ‘, wherein he wrote the following;
    “She left the kitchen with a pair of tall plastic glasses in hand, which contained frozen effervescent bubbles ”
    When I pointed out to him that, plastic glasses and frozen effervescent, were oxymoronic, he got defensive.

    Any thoughts on the above ?.

    Ken. S.L.

  3. Jani

    Hi Liz, as an EFL learner, I really appreciate that you take the time to write about collocations in the blog. Cheers!

  4. Lola

    Thanks for your suggestion,it gives me a whole new method to study English.But the biggest problem of learning English for me is that it’s hard to transfer what I want to express to English !sometimes I will think of the English expression for a moment so that I can speak it out .And it seems to me that your method will help me a lot,once I get familiar with the collocation, I could express my thoughts intuitively!٩(˃̶͈̀௰˂̶͈́)و

  5. FHK

    Excellent post. I’d like to see blog posts on Text-reffering Words and Phrases as well as on Discourse Markers from you to make English writing more natural. Thank you.

  6. Bia NGUYEN

    Hi Liz,

    Many thanks for your article I like it so much.
    That motivates me to go back for improving my English learning.

  7. Griffin

    Thank you for your effort into this useful article. Indeed, I found this website just a few weeks ago.
    Since then, I have kept up to date with the upload about vocabulary for learners out of curiosity. The more I get into words you provide, the more I love English language. So please keep it up and support learners with such useful information! Cheers!

  8. Lung-Hsi Lee

    Hello Mrs Walter,

    Thanks for your advice for learning English. I think yor are right. Learning collocation is very important and not easy for non-native English speaker. I’m from Taiwan and I remembered one of my English teacher said that too in my high school life. About particular areas I would like you to cover, I really don’t know. I guess maybe in sports, politics or car areas.

    Thank you

    Lung-Hsi Lee

  9. Liang

    Thanks a lot, these collocations are of great help to improve my English. I expect some more collocations regarding daily routine. Looking for your next post.

  10. Do Ngoc Duy

    Can you give more collocations about writing scientific research theory, expecially in construction material?
    Thanh you very much!

    D.N.Du

  11. Christina Kapetaniou

    I am writing in response to your article about collocation. This article is greatly helpful especially for me that I am trying to upgrade my English language skills so that I can not only sit for the upcoming May CPE exams in my country, Greece, but also expand my knowledge understanding better how I can communicate my notions in English.
    Thank you very much.
    I try to look up phrasal verbs and idioms but I would like you to help me by providing a helpful method of learning such linguistic items since I meet some difficulties. So, please suggest me a way of learning them.

    1. Liz Walter

      I think in general it’s best to learn ones you come across in your reading, but there are plenty of phrasal verb and idioms reference books/workbooks you could try.

  12. I have an collocation question and can’t find an answer online.
    If someone wants to back out of a deal you made together, but you want the deal to go through, do you say, “We have a deal. Could you follow the deal?”
    Do you use ‘follow?’ Or in the situation, what will you often say?

    Thank you.

  13. Carlos Corrales Blanco

    I felt this pair of words are working well giving clearly meanings, helping me to understand in a better way. I agree with you that collocation is an importan topic to learn. Thank for your help.

  14. I would like to ask you that How I can know the use of collocation especially between verb and noun because Verbs are usually used to describe activity of people. They are seldom applied for the other ways. Thus, it’s hard to find out the correct collocation huhu. Please respone me!
    Thank you so much.
    Enjoy the rest of your day.

    1. Liz Walter

      If you use a good dictionary with examples, common collocations will often be shown. Otherwise, you need to look out for them when you read or listen.

  15. Mauricio Uribe

    I find your contribution an indispensable resource for any learner of English. I hope it reaches a numerous amount of people and helps them to improve their skills. Best wishes, Mauricio

  16. Ken. S.L.

    Dear Liz,

    Some of the collocations, seem to come accross as being, oxymoronic.
    Case in point : A recent review of a writing in progress, had the following;
    “She left the kitchen with a pair of tall plastic glasses in hand, which contained frozen effervescent bubbles ”
    When I pointed out that, plastic glasses and frozen effervescent, sounded oxymoronic, the writer got defensive.

    Any thoughts on the above ?.

    Ken. S.L.

    1. Liz Walter

      Well I guess you’re correct, literally speaking! But the writer has a problem, since we don’t have another word for ‘glasses’ (‘cup’ would conjure a different image), and it could also be argued that the bubbles were effervescent before they froze!

  17. Ken. S.L.

    Hello Liz,

    Thank You so much for the response.
    However, in the interest of writing accurately, I believe the the words ‘ plastic tumblers ‘, may have better fit the description.

    With regards to the ‘ frozen bubbles ‘, which sounded far-fetched to me : The writer explained that, it was the design on the outer surface of those drinking containers.
    Obviously, ‘ decorative ‘ and not in the water itself.

    Hope the foregoing, provides some clarity.

    Ken. S.L.

  18. Ken. S.L.

    Hello Liz,

    Thank You so much for the response.

    However, in the interest of writing accurately, I believe the words ‘ plastic tumblers ‘, may have better fit the description.

    With regards to the ‘ frozen bubbles ‘, which sounded far-fetched to me : The writer explained that, it was the design on the outer surface of those drinking containers.
    Obviously, ‘ decorative ‘ and never effervescent.

    Hope the foregoing, provides some clarity.

    Ken. S.L.

  19. Hi,

    ‘What verb do I need to use this noun?’

    I’d rather write the question above (which occurred in the last paragraph) with the preposition ‘with’ at the end. As a result, the question could possibly be written like this: ‘What verb do I need to use this noun with?’

    Thanks.

    1. Liz Walter

      Your sentence is correct, but I was using ‘to’ in the sense of ‘in order to’, which is also correct.

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