What is collocation?

In my last post I set a challenge that required you to understand the concept collocation, but later it occurred to me that you might not understand what it is.

  • We say “Merry Christmas.”
  • We say “Happy birthday.”
  • We never say “Merry birthday.”

There is no grammatical reason why we cannot say Merry birthday. In fact the only explanation is that, well, that’s just the way it is! Welcome to the frustrating world of collocation.

How to define ‘collocation’?

We can think of ‘collocation’ as colocation, meaning together in the same location. Two or more words often appear together – or close to each other – in a phrase or sentence.

In the above example we have adjective noun collocationMerry (adj) + Christmas (n). Other combinations are possible. Verb noun (v-n) is one of the most common:

  • I must remember to take my medicine.

In this case the verb take collocates with the noun medicine. Aha, so we can say that one word collocates with another word (or words):

  1. merry (adj) collocates with Christmas (n)
  2. happy (adj) collocates with birthday (n)
  3. take (v) collocates with medicine (n)

We can also say that examples 1 and 2 are examples of adjective-noun (adj-n) collocation, while example 3 is an example of verb-noun (v-n) collocation.

Why is collocation important?

If words always go together in a phrase or sentence, this is called strong collocation. On the other hand if they only appear together some of the time, this is weak collocation. Including strong collocation in your IELTS speaking and writing gets you a high score for vocabulary.

Beyond IELTS, if you don’t use collocation in your speaking and writing, your listeners and readers will know very quickly that you are not a native English speaker. This is because collocation is often different in different languages:

  • Union Jack  I must take (v) my medicine (n).
  • Indonesian flag  Saya harus minum (v) obat (n). [= drink medicine]

If you tell your Australian friend that you need to drink your medicine, he will understand you, and will not correct you, but you will sound like a foreigner!

How can I recognise collocation

The best way to acquire collocation in a language is to read as much as possible in that language. Only by seeing examples of collocation, repeatedly, can you begin to get a feel for what words go together with other words.

You will find that collocation is strong in certain situations:

  • Idioms contain strong collocation. We say “Merry and Christmas are like peas in a pod,” meaning that they are always seen together. We never say like peas in a soup, or like leaves on a tree, or as peas in a pod. We always say like + peas + in + a + pod – the same words in the same sequence, every time!
  • Collocation is also strong in connecting phrases. We say As a matter of fact, not As the matter of fact, or As a matter of truth.

Collocation resources

  1. The best resource for collocation is text – spoken and written. Listen to lots of English, and read lots of English. Eventually you will notice collocation patterns and start using them yourself.
  2. The next best resource would be an electronic corpus of English, where you can quickly focus on examples of a particular word or phrase. For example, at forbetterenglish.com, we see that the verb prove often collocates with the noun difficult.
  3. We can also check for collocation in an online (or printed?!) collocation dictionary. For example if we search in ozdic.com, we see that the verb make collocates strongly with the noun contribution.
  4. And finally our old friend Google can sometimes help. Try entering What verb collocates with contribution? and see what Google offers. When I tried it, the third item in the results led me to ozdic.com!


(Click on highlighted words for information)

Words that collocate are like peas in a pod! Noticing how words appear together requires effort, but – in my experience – it is a much better investment of your time than studying grammar – those grammar habits are difficult to change!

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