Let’s face it: English is difficult. One word can have many different meanings, but limited collocations. You can play squash, you can eat squash, or you can squash a bug. Someone might bug you, bugs might bite you, a stomach bug might make you sick, the FBI might install bugs to listen in on you, you might get bitten by the love bug, or your computer might get a bug. One thing is clear, steer clear of bugs of all kinds if you’re bugged by bugs.
Phew, see my point?
What are collocations?
Collocations are words that usually go together. To make it easy to remember, look at it this way:
Co (together) + location (place)
Collocations are everywhere! Take easy to remember for example. While there are many ways to say easy (plain, uncomplicated, simple.), it is far less common to use those words with to remember. It is possible to say something is simple to remember, but it is not nearly as common as easy to remember. As of this writing, a quick Google search returned approximately 8 times more results for easy to remember than simple to remember.
- easy to remember: 170,000,000 (Update: 156,000,000)
- simple to remember: 17,500,00 (Update: 10,400,00)
- uncomplicated to remember: 47,100 (Update: 53,200)
- plain to remember: 5 (Update: 19)
These results provide a window into word usage. If you look at the results for “plain to remember,” you’ll see that most of them are actually using the words separately and not as a group of collocated words. It is likely that the remaining examples were written by non-native speakers.
Why are collocations important to learn?
Learning words in isolation limits your knowledge of how words are used. If you learn a word, but not its collocations, there is a good chance that you will use it in an unusual or strange way. Most of the time, people will still understand what you are trying to say, so don’t be afraid to use the words you are learning. Just be aware that like people, many words have friends that they hang out with regularly.
By learning words in groups, you expand your vocabulary and your accuracy.
Avoid Collocation Mistakes: You can’t make a girlfriend.
Do you hesitate to speak English because you are worried that you might misuse a word? One of the main reasons for the misuse of words is a lack of knowledge about collocations. For example, many of my students say that they want to make a boyfriend or girlfriend. What’s wrong with that? We make friends, don’t we? There English goes again, being difficult. While make and friend collocate, make and boyfriend and girlfriend do not. You’re going to need some pretty advanced technology to make a girlfriend.
While it would seem to make perfect sense, a native speaker will picture you creating a robot or some other artificial creation if you say you want to make a girlfriend. It sounds strange when these words are grouped together in this way because this is not how native speakers use these words.
Express Yourself More Clearly and Naturally
What can you say instead of I want to make a boyfriend/girlfriend? Here are some ways to express it more naturally:
- I want a girlfriend.
- I wish I had a girlfriend.
- I want to find a boyfriend.
- How can I find a boyfriend?
Get Lots of Authentic Input
Native speakers learn collocations naturally by hearing them over and over and over again, and you can learn them too! You can employ the same methods as native speakers by immersing yourself. How? Expose yourself to lots and lots of English. Read in English every day. If you are reading this, you are already off to a great start! You can also watch TV shows or other videos online or listen to podcasts in English. Pay attention to the ways words are grouped together. It is important to expose yourself to authentic language materials created for and by native speakers (or fluent non-native speakers of course!) so that you can hear the way words are used and combined.
Be an Active Learner
The other way to learn collocations is by actively looking for them. There are many online resources to help you do this. Remember, you can do your own research using Google, like I did in the example above. By searching using quotation marks, you can see whether or not words collocate and how they are used in context. Keep in mind that not every result will be from a reliable source, so use your judgement.
In Summary, Learning Collocations Will Help You:
- sound more natural
- make fewer mistakes
- be more easily understood
- build your vocabulary more quickly
- increase your ability to express yourself
- help you use the words you already know more effectively