Collocations are likely the most important aspect of natural, easy-to-understand English. They are everywhere—you already use some, but native speakers certainly use far more than you. So what are they, and where do you find them?
What are collocations?
Collocations are words that are frequently used together. They sound “right” to a native speaker. For instance, do you, "take a reservation", or do you, "make a reservation"? You make it! Why? Because make collocates with reservation. Nouns often have verbs that collocate.
Another example is, “common knowledge”. If you say, “familiar knowledge”, it would sound strange and maybe even be hard to understand.
Technically speaking, they’re both correct. But one sounds right to an English speaker, while the other one is more like, “That’s weird,” or even, “What? I don’t get what you’re saying.”
Unfortunately for you, there aren’t any strict rules for collocations.
Where are they?
Fortunately for you, we use collocations a lot in English. So, if you know how to look, you’ll find them everywhere. Try this paragraph from the popular podcast, “Planet Money.” This episode is about investing. Read and make a note of anything you think is a collocation.
So, about six months ago, we at The Indicator made an investment. It was a risky investment. Pretty much everybody told us we were going to lose our shirts, but we went for it anyway. And this investment took us on a pretty amazing journey into the world of energy markets, debt, pink slips and even death, transformation and rebirth. It has been truly epic.
How many collocations did you find? I see four obvious ones:
- made (to make) an investment
- risky investment
- took us (to be taken) on a ... journey
- truly epic [= really amazing]
By the way, there are also two idioms in the text. Can you find them? The answer is at the end of this post.
How to approach new collocations
Those four collocations are familiar to most English speakers because they are so commonly used.
How can you tell they are commonly used? Easy, search the phrase on the Internet with quotes. If you search for “truly epic” on Google, you get over 1.5 million hits. “Make an investment” returns 21 million, and “risky investment” has over half-a-million.
Newer dictionaries often include lists of collocations. My personal favorite is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Just scroll through a word’s definition a ways, and you’ll find a list of common collocations. (There’s a lot of other great stuff in that dictionary—bookmark it!)
Try the word “investment”. They give you our two main collocations, plus about 20 other, lesser-used ones. See how many you already know. Have you used any of them before? What other ones look particularly useful to you?
Search spoken English
A fun way to hear collocations in use is to search spoken English with YouGlish.com. If you find a collocation in the dictionary, you can search for it. Youglish turns up actual videos where they’re used. Here’s an example for “risky investment”: How to pronounce risky investment in English. As you can see, this is only one of many videos with that phrase in it. (YouGlish.com is a terrific learning tool for hearing things spoken in a natural way—bookmark it, too!)
Practice, practice, practice!
Remember, you’ll only learn what you use. So write your own sentences, from your own context, with collocations that you find—e.g., “I love the original 1977 Star Wars movie. It’s truly epic!” For me, it’s true.
- What movie do you think is truly epic?
- Have you ever made a risky investment?
- What are some examples of common knowledge?
- Do you have a favorite word in English? Look it up and see if it has any collocations.
Play around (another collocation) with it. Collocations are great fun! (I can't stop using collocations!)
*IDIOMS ANSWER (I wrote them backwards for a little more discovery fun):