Collecting Collocations: Speak like a Native!

Collocations in the English language refer to the relationship that is formed between certain words. The connection is so strong that it would sound strange to replace either word for one with the exact same meaning.

For example, the term “fast food” is a generally accepted collocation. “Quick” and “fast” mean the same thing, but If you swapped the word “fast” for “quick” and instead said “quick food”, people would have no idea that you were referring to a takeaway restaurant. Similarly, if you changed the word “food” for “meal” and said “fast meal”, you might receive a strange look from whomever you are talking to.

Word pairings are very important in English, and unfortunately there is no easy rule to learn; you just have to try and remember. The hardest part about collocations is that native speakers won’t necessarily know why the wrong words sound strange: the general rule is just “that’s what sounds right!” But the good news is that, once you’ve mastered collocations, you’ll sound just like a native speaker.

Categorising collocations can make it easier to learn them.

Strong vs weak collocations

Strong collocations are those with words that don’t match to many other words. The connection is quite strong because there are very few other acceptable options to say the same thing. For example, the expression “turn on a light” is a strong collocation. Most other synonyms will sound very strange and unnatural, whether “start a light”, “activate a light”, etc.

Weak collocations are the reverse of this. They include words that have many other options. The expression “very interesting” is commonly used, but the collocation is weak: “extremely interesting”, and “really interesting” are all acceptable substitutes.

Pictured here: a child who has turned on a light, not a child who has activated a light.
Pictured here: a child who has turned on a light, not a child who has activated a light.

Grammatical collocations

Collocations can also be sorted into grammatical categories. These include:

Adjective + noun:

  • strong coffee (not “heavy coffee”)
  • heavy traffic (not “large traffic”)
  • express mail (not “quick mail”)

Adverb + adjective:

  • partly cloudy (not “slightly cloudy”)
  • happily married (not “gladly married”)
  • highly generous (not “greatly generous”)

Noun + noun:

  • bars of soap (not “bricks of soap”)
  • round of applause (not “bang of applause”)
  • a swarm of insects (not “a herd of insects”)

Noun + verb:

  • prices fall (not “prices descend”)
  • a lion roars (not “a lion shouts”)
  • the wind howls (not “the wind screams”)
  • Pictured here: a lion with a ferocious roar, not a ferocious shout.


Verb + noun:

  • make the bed (not “do the bed”)
  • do the shopping (not “make the shopping”)
  • put on clothes (not “place on clothes”)

Verb + expression with a preposition

  • He comments on the painting. (not “He comments about the painting.”)
  • participate in a conference (not “participate at a conference”)
  • explain to someone (not “explain at someone”)

Verb + adverb:

  • drive safely (not “drive securely”)
  • choose wisely (not “choose smartly”)
  • responded quickly (not “responded swiftly”)

The case for collocations

If you don’t learn about collocations, you will still be able to get by with the English language. However, you will find your speaking seems a lot more natural and native if you get them correct. They also make learning English slightly easier, as you are learning new chunks of words rather than trying to remember single words out of context.

Reading is an excellent way to learn new collocations, as you will soon recognise the ones that are used most often. It is likely that you will pick up a few well-known collocations through speaking with English locals without even realising it. Are there any you can think of that haven’t been mentioned in this blog?

Check out some more useful grammar tips:

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