In recent years, Wordsmyth has offered a feature called “Word Combinations” that lists words that typically combine with the headword that one has looked up. A more technical term for “word combinations” is “collocations.” The notion of collocation refers to the tendency of words to be located in close proximity to certain others; that is, where you find one word, you often find a certain other word or particular group of words. Where you find “logical,” for example, you will often find the word “solution,” “conclusion,” or “explanation.” Two or more words that are found together with a relatively high frequency are called “collocations.”
Here is a simple test of your knowledge of some typical collocations in English. See if you can guess some of the words (“collocates”) that most frequently follow or precede the listed words.
1. a loyal ___________
2. an ancient ___________
3. a nasty ___________
4. _________ a crime
5. _________ a scheme
6. _________ a role
7. break a __________
8. propose a __________
9. offer a __________
If you said “fan” and “customer” for “loyal,” you determined two of the most frequent collocates for that word. If you said “commit” for “crime,” you found the most frequent collocate by far. The most common collocates for all the other words are listed below.*
For many adult native speakers, especially those who have had a lot of exposure to written language, it can be a fairly simple task to predict what words typically follow or precede others. This is, after all, the basis of many word games and the reason that old television game shows such as Password, Match Game, and Family Feud were able to be successful. However, learners of a language, whether they are young native speakers or adult second language learners, cannot always predict what words tend to go together or need to be used together in order to sound native and “correct.” English speakers do not generally say “do a crime” or “perform a crime,” for example. They say “commit a crime,” “carry out a crime,” or “perpetrate a crime.” Even highly literate native speakers do not always know what verb is the most appropriate for a certain subject in a sentence or what kind of object is used with a certain verb. Is it acceptable to say that havoc arises, for example (yes!) or that something assuaged one’s worry? (yes!)
Listing high-frequency collocations is a method that some dictionaries are now using to help users decide what words may go together appropriately in their own speech and writing. Collocations can be helpful in another important way as well. By seeing what kinds of words are frequently paired with a certain word, one can get a closer idea of that word’s meaning and a sense of what context the word is used in. In this way, one can better decide if it is truly the right word for one’s purpose.
One problem that learners of a language constantly face is the choice between synonyms. The words “acquire” and “obtain,” for example, have basically the same meaning, and, in many contexts, they are interchangeable. And yet these words are not used in exactly the same way. We don’t usually say “acquire feedback,” or “acquire a divorce.” For these objects, we generally use “obtain.” By the same token, we don’t typically say “obtain a habit” or “obtain an understanding.” By seeing the collocates of the two words “acquire” and “obtain,” we can see that “obtain” tends to be used more often when an outside source is involved and when there is not much emphasis on a process that the subject goes through or undertakes.
Knowledge of collocation also allows for a certain level of predictability in the processing of language that one hears, thus easing the burden of catching the sounds of individual words with one’s ears. Whereas non-native speakers are often straining to hear every sound that comes out of the mouth of their interlocutor, native speakers can limit the possibilities of what a speaker may say next because of their knowledge of what words typically follow others.
The exploration of collocation is relatively new within the areas of language teaching and lexicography. It has been greatly advanced, however, by the ability to search large electronic corpora for examples of frequent combinations of words. Until recent years, lexicographers have focused largely on the precise meanings of individual words and have given less attention to how words combine with others and how individual words are distinct from other, similar words. The presentation of collocations within headword entries is an advance that should be very helpful, not to mention of interest, to learners at all levels.
* 1. loyal: friend, fan, customer, following
* 2. ancient: civilization, city, ruin, rite
* 3. nasty: gash, bruise, habit, surprise
* 4. crime: commit, perpetrate
* 5. scheme: devise, develop
* 6. role: play, assume, define, perform
* 7. break: law, heart, record, rule, spell, monotony, deadlock
* 8. propose: plan, tax, compromise
* 9. offer: congratulations, condolence, rebate, discount, reassurance