Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

What are collocations?

Collocations are words that usually go together.

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?

2-page vocabulary guide with explanations to all of the words in bold in this post about collocations

Understanding Collocations

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.

Google Results and Word Use

While the overall results are constantly changing, if you google the expressions below, you’ll find that the search results show a far higher occurrence of easy to remember.

  • easy to remember: 170,000,000 (Update: 124,000,000)
  • simple to remember: 17,500,000 (Update: 7,840,000)
  • uncomplicated to remember: 47,100 (Update: 24,400)
  • plain to remember: 5 (Update: 316,000)

These results provide a window into (insight into) word usage. If you look at the results for plain to remember, you’ll see that they are not used in the same context as easy to remember. The results use the words separately and not as a group of collocated words. For example, “There are several monuments around the plain to remember these events.” In this example, plain means a large area of flat land with few trees. The numbers change all the time, but overall, using Google search results is a good way to figure out if you’re using a word correctly. Another way is to ask ChatGPT.

Related post: ChatGPT for Language Learning

My favorite collocation resource

Another great resource is YouGlish. You can hear words used in context taken from YouTube videos. A similar search produced 948 examples of “easy to remember”, 155 examples of “simple to remember”, 0 results for “uncomplicated to remember” and 4 results for “plain to remember” but non of them were as a single phrase.

Why are collocations important to learn?

Learning words in isolation limits your knowledge of how to use words correctly. 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 (spend time with) regularly.

By learning words in groups, you expand your vocabulary and your accuracy.

collocations, collaboration

Common Collocation Mistake

You can’t make a girlfriend.

Do you hesitate to speak English because you worry about using a word incorrectly? One of the main reasons for the misuse of words is a lack of knowledge about collocations. For example, a common mistake I hear from my students is 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 is likely to picture you creating a robot or some other artificial creation if you say you want to make a girlfriend. Grouping these words together sounds strange because native speakers do not use these words together.

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.
  • He wishes he had a girlfriend.
  • She wants to find a boyfriend.
  • How can I find a boyfriend?

Related post: Dating and Love Vocabulary and Expressions

How can you learn collocations?

Authentic Input

Native speakers learn collocations naturally by hearing them over and over and over again, and you can learn them this way 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 go 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.

Related post: Word of the Day: Authentic

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 the correct context to use them in. Keep in mind that not every result will be from a reliable source, so use your judgement.

You can also search YouGlish to see if what you want to say is common and natural.

Related post: Why learn words in context?

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

Continue Your Collocations Journey

Access definitions to the vocabulary in this post at my Ko-fi shop.

If you want to keep learning about collocations, check out the material provided by EnglishClub. There, you’ll find more information about how to learn collocations, types of collocations, sample collocations, a collocation quiz, and links to advanced collocations and more.

If an E-book is more your style, you might like 1000 English Collocations in 10 Minutes a Day by my affiliate, Shayna, over at Espresso English. Click on the image below to check it out.

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1000 English Collocations in 10 Minutes a Day E-book & Audio