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’?

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More than one ‘most’!

Over-grazing is one of the most significant factor in environmental land degradation.

I know what you’re thinking – one means singular. Well, true, but that’s ‘over-grazing’ – even though it’s uncountable, the subject ‘over-grazing’ is a single thing. In this structure, one of + superlative adjective is telling us about ‘factors’, not about ‘over-grazing’.

I know what else you’re thinking – surely there is only one most?! Well, not always! When it comes to land degradation there is more than one ‘most significant factor’. For example, ‘deforestation’ is another ‘most significant factor’, and so ‘factor’ needs to be plural:

Over-grazing is one of the most significant factors in environmental land degradation.

Repeat after me..

one of + superlative + plural countable noun
one of + superlative + plural countable noun
one of + superlative + plural countable noun
one of + superlative + plural countable noun
one of + superlative + plural countable noun
(repeat until you get tired..)

More examples using ‘most’ here.

Writing ‘rights’ right!

Indonesia has rights to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are not adhered to.

When rights are the simple object of a sentence I rarely see any error in student writing.

  • Women have rights.
  • Workers’ union members have rights.
  • etc.

My own students write sentences like this without error. However, when adding information about these rights in a more complex sentence, they soon run into problems.

I think it’s best to look at this as a lexical issue, rather than a grammatical one.

The word rights (with ‘s’) is often used as part of a lexical phrase, like ‘human rights’, or ‘animal rights’, or ‘rights for women’. Each of these phrases refers to a set of rights (more than one) that belong to a particular group.

On the other hand if you’re only talking about a single right, as in the opening example – withdrawing from ASEAN – then the following structures are common.

  1. (to have) + the + right + to + V1
    • Sony had the right to distribute the recordings in 1985.
    • The president has the right to overturn the new law.
    • The right to vote is under attack across the country.
  2. (to have) + the + right + to + n
    • Every citizen has the right to free medical care.
    • The right to privacy is often ignored by the authorities.
  3. to have + a + right + to + V1
    • I have a right to park here. I live here!

Notice that the right in example 1 is one that is seldom exercised (= used), while the right (‘a right’) in example 3 is probably exercised regularly. The structure in example 3, which is not as common in academic writing, very often begins with either a proper noun or personal pronoun (in this case ‘I’).

So to return to our opening example, we need one of these:

  • Indonesia has the right to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are not adhered to.
  • The right to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are broken, is held by all ASEAN members.

Withdrawing from ASEAN is not a right that is exercised regularly, and so the right is more appropriate than a right.

Notice also in an earlier comment I used strong verb-noun collocation: exercise + right. For other words that collocate with right, see here, and for more examples of the structures demonstrated in this post, see here.

Prevent Avoid Protect

Indonesia should prevent its resources from the threat of bio-piracy.

Meaning can become distorted or even lost when you translate directly. In this case we have a direct translation of the Indonesian mencegah, which – in many situations – does indeed translate as prevent.

As usual, I strongly advise Indonesian scholars to forget about the grammar here and to think in terms of vocabulary, or lexis. The following lexical options are NOT possible in English:

  1. prevent + n + from + n (not  __ing)
  2. avoid + n + from + n

Next we have the  ‘good‘ structures. If you like you can click on prevent, protect, and avoid to see examples of these structures.

  1. prevent + n
  2. prevent + n + from + __ing
  3. protect + n
  4. protect + n + from + n
  5. avoid + n

So which structure is best for the bio-piracy example? Well, all are possible!

  1. Indonesia should prevent bio-piracy.
  2. Indonesia should prevent bio-piracy from occurring.
  3. Indonesia should protect its bio-diversity.
  4. Indonesia should protect itself from bio-piracy.
  5. Indonesia should avoid bio-piracy.

See also this post for further analysis of avoid.

Bring take carry

You can also use Gojek if you don’t bring much luggage.

 This is another common Indonesian translation that results in ugly collocation.

As a general rule, when you use take and bring then you’re usually also talking about places. But you also need to think about where you are at the time of speaking, and where the thing is that is being taken or brought.

If you say “I took my lunchbox to work and brought it home again,” then at the time of speaking:

  • You are at home.
  • Your lunchbox is at home.
  • You took it from here to there. (not bring from here to there)
  • Brought it (back) from there to here. (not take from there to here)

Let’s look again at the opening example:

  • You can also use Gojek if you don’t bring much luggage.

Here the writer uses bring but does not mention any place, and it’s difficult to imagine a specific space. The Gojek ride can begin anywhere and end anywhere.

If you use bring or take then you need to mention either a start or a finish location, or both!

  • If you have a lot of luggage then you cannot bring it home by Gojek.
    • you are at home
    • bring from there to here (home = finish location)
  • If you have a lot of luggage then you cannot take it to the airport by Gojek.
    • you are at home
    • take from here to there (home = start location)
  • If you have a lot of luggage then you cannot take it from home to the airport by Gojek.
    • you are at home
    • take from here to there (home = start location)
  • etc.

If you don’t mention start or finish locations and it is difficult to imagine one, you probably need  carry:

You can also use Gojek if you don’t carry much luggage.

You could use ‘can’, or not!

This could be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.

This is possible in some languages but not in English. In English if something happens the same way, all the time, predictably, without variation, then there isn’t really any question of probability (‘could‘). For regular, predictable phenomena use good old present simple tense without modals:

  • This is achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.

Only use modals for unpredictable or uncertain situations, and then think about the degree of predictability or certainty:

  • This could be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level, but there are other, better methods.
    (= Gravity perhaps not the best method)
  • In most situations this can be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.
    (= Gravity usually the best method)

flag-of-indonesia Notice that could implies a more negative evaluation than can. Indonesians should think carefully about this distinction as they tend to over-use could, having been taught in school that could is more formal than can. Well, yes it is, but only in offers and requests:

  • Can you pass the salt? (informal)
  • Could you pass the salt, please? (formal)
  • Excuse me. Would you mind passing the salt? (very formal)
  • etc.

Contribution, cause, effect

The experience I got from this job has strong contributions in changing my character from employee to leader.

This is a word that has been borrowed from English and is now used in Indonesian as the noun kontribusi. However, it’s difficult to find a verb that collocates with the noun contribution in English. Certainly you would not use ‘have‘ + ‘contributions‘. In English, contribution usually appears before the verb, as the subject of a sentence. In addition, contribution (subject) often refers either to money or to the efforts of a person or people. In the example above, however, experience and changing are both abstract nouns where one is the cause and the other is the effect.

If you want to communicate cause effect then you need the verb form contribute. There are still collocation issues, but heck – that gives you something to show off in your IELTS writing, right?

  • The experience I got from this job has contributed greatly to changing my character from employee to leader.

Notice!

Remember that when both nouns are abstract, contribute to behaves as a cause effect signal. This is a relatively low-frequency signal and is therefore a good signal to use in IELTS writing as an alternative to the more common verb cause.

Contribute to is also weaker than cause and is therefore useful when you want to express less than 100% certainty:

  • Greenhouse gases cause global warming. (Strong – implies no other causes)
  • Greenhouse gases contribute to global warming. (Weaker – implies there may be other causes)

Using weak verbs is one of several strategies for weakening debatable claims. I deal with other strategies in other posts. You can find two more strategies here.

A refreshing refreshment

Students can take a break while they are studying in college for refreshing.

flag-of-indonesia This word has been borrowed from English and used in Indonesian as a noun. However, in English ‘refreshing‘ is not a noun, and the closest noun available is ‘refreshment‘, but this is used almost exclusively for food and drink.

Refreshing‘ is an adjective:

  • Students can take a refreshing break while they are studying at college.
  • Taking a break while studying at college can be refreshing.

Refreshed and refreshing

IELTS candidates are often asked to explain why they enjoy certain activities, for example going to the beach at the weekend. In this case both the adjectives ‘refreshing’ and ‘refreshed’ might be used:

  • Going to the beach at the weekend is refreshing.
  • When I go to the beach at the weekend I feel refreshed.

Refreshing and refreshed follow the same rule as bored and boring, where the __ing form is for the source, and the __ed form is used for the receiver:

  • I feel refreshed. (receiver: I)
  • Going to the beach is refreshing. (source: Going to the beach)

Refresh

Finally, you might use the verb ‘refresh‘:

  • I go to the beach at the weekend to refresh myself.

Notice that in this case you must include an object: refresh myself. Also notice that when you’re explaining why you do something, you use to + V1 (not for).

Further study

Check out these other examples of ‘refreshing’.

It is called as ‘bad grammar’

People call this as the ‘big data era’.

flag-of-indonesia In Bahasa Indonesia disebut (called) collocates strongly with sebagai (as). Not so in English. Indeed, sebagai is often redundant in English, except when it collocates with certain verbs.

The correct options here are:

  1. People call this the ‘big data era’. (active call without as)
  2. This era is called the ‘big data era’. (passive call without as)
  3. This era is known as the ‘big data era’. (passive know with as)

Most native speakers would probably use number 1, except when the term being introduced is somehow scientific:

  • Liquids tend to travel quickly along very narrow spaces. This phenomenon is known as capillary attraction.

Be careful. If you want to use known as then you need to begin with some of the defining characteristics of the ‘known’ phenomenon:

  • Recently data has become so complex that traditional data processing application software is inadequate to deal with it. This data is now known as ‘big data’.

flag-of-indonesia Indonesians.. Once again, be careful with sebagai! It collocates differently in English.

Ask the menu!

menu couple 450
Non-native speakers having dinner!

flag-of-indonesia This is a common mistake made by Indonesians translating ‘tanya‘ instead of ‘minta‘.

The options in English are (take a deep breath!):

  1. I’ll ask the waiter. (ask someone)
  2. I’ll ask the waiter to bring us the menu. (ask someone to do something)
  3. I’ll ask the waiter about the menu. (ask someone about something/someone)
  4. I’ll ask the waiter for the menu. (ask someone for something)
  5. I’ll ask for the menu. (ask for something/someone)

Most native speakers would probably use Number 5.

Notice that ask something is not in this list. The picture below shows what might happen if you ask the menu!

menu talk 300
Most menus cannot answer questions!

flag-of-indonesia Possibly there are different ways to translate the correct forms into Indonesian. I know that I’m never confident when using tanya and minta in Indonesian. If you have any suggestions, please share in the comments box below!