If you have been studying English even for a short time, chances are you have already heard or read hundreds of collocations.
A collocation is a group of two or more words that is almost always used together. Here are a few examples:
break a habit
make a mistake
It would sound strange if someone said, “huge rain” “large decision” “finish a habit” or “do a mistake.” Most people would understand the meaning, but native English speakers would never combine words in that way. We would not say, for instance, “I’m hoping to hear about the large decision later today.”
The point is that some words go together in English and some do not. There is no grammatical reason why. And that sometimes makes collocations difficult for English learners. If you don’t know, for example, that “big decision” is a collocation, it is not so easy to guess.
Another thing that can make these things tricky is that many English words have several collocations. For instance, the word “decision” can be used in “difficult decision,” “final decision” and many others.
Today on Everyday Grammar, we will give you three practice exercises on collocations. Improving your use of collocations will help your English sound more natural, which will make you more easily understood.
Learn by recognizing
One of the best ways to look for collocations is to read and listen to many things in English. This will help you start to recognize them when you see and hear them.
In this first exercise, you will hear a short story with several collocations. Most in the story begin with common verbs such as have, get, make and take. But note that collocations can be made of any part of speech, not just verbs, but also nouns, adverbs and adjectives.
Now, listen to the story and write down as many collocations as you hear:
We had plans to meet some good friends by 11. So this morning, I took a shower by 9. As I was making the bed, I could hear heavy rain outside. I checked the weather and saw it was going to be a cold, wet day. So I got dressed in warm clothes.
My husband made breakfast. The pancakes were tasty but whenever he cooks, he makes a mess! But he did wash the dishes so I can’t complain. So anyway, we took the train and met our friends at a holiday market. We had a great time but probably spent too much money!
So, what did you find?
Here are the verb-noun collocations:
have plans, make the bed, take a shower, check the weather, make breakfast, make a mess, wash the dishes, take the train, have a good time and spend money
You also heard the adjective-noun collocations “good friends,” “heavy rain” and “warm clothes” and the verb-verb collocations “get dressed” and “can’t complain.”
This gives you some idea of just how much we use them. They are everywhere!
Learn with a dictionary
OK, onto the second exercise: using a collocation dictionary.
Earlier, I told you that some English words have many collocations. So let’s take a few words from the story and see what I mean. You can find a few good collocation dictionaries online, such as freecollocation.com.*
Now, try looking up the word “make” and find two collocations that were not in the story. Then, look up the word “time” and find two collocations that were not in the story.
For “make,” you might for example find “make an effort” and “make money.” For “time,” you might for example find “free time” and “take your time.”
Again, there are many possibilities for each word. These are just a few.
Using a collocation dictionary can be helpful, but do not attempt to make long lists and memorize them. Instead, note just a few collocations every time and write a sentence or two for each that relates to your own life. For example, for “free time,” you might write “I wish I had more free time during the week” or “I will finally have free time when I go home for the holiday.”
Then, try using some of these in your real life conversations.
Learn by observation
All right. That brings us to the third practice activity.
TV, or television programs can teach you a lot about collocations.
One way to use them is to observe and note the collocations you find in a few minutes of dialogue on a TV show or movie. Then, just as in the last exercise, write a sentence for each that you might use in real life, and practice using it sometime in conversation.
Another fun thing you might try is a little less usual.
Some of you may remember the 1990s British TV show Mr. Bean. On the show, Mr. Bean would find humorous solutions to the problems of everyday life, like shopping, going to restaurants, traveling or celebrating holidays. But here is what’s unusual about the show: there is almost no dialogue.
So, in this activity, you are testing which collocations you can name without hearing anyone speaking. On our website, you will find a short video of Mr. Bean. Watch the video and try to name a few collocations to describe the place, people, things and actions you see.
If you’re unsure whether something is a collocation, you can check it in a collocation dictionary.
And don’t forget to tell us what you find!
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
*Oxford is a British dictionary but includes American collocations. British and American English share most of the same collocations but be aware of small differences.
Write two or three sentences about your own life using collocations you heard today. You can choose from: have plans, make the bed, take a shower, check the weather, make breakfast, make a mess, wash (the) dishes or any of the others.
Then, try using your sentences in real conversations.
Note that the Mr. Bean practice exercise is fairly advanced so don't worry if you can't find many collocations. You can still try it for fun! Watch the video carefully a few times and see what collocations you can name from observation.
Words in This Story
habit – n. something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way
grammatical – adj. of or relating to grammar
guess – v. to form an opinion or give an answer about something when you do not know much or anything about it
shower – n. the act of washing your body with a shower
check – v. to get information by looking at something or asking about something
pancake – n. a thin, flat, round cake that is made by cooking batter on both sides
mess – n. a very dirty or untidy state or condition
dictionary – n. a book that lists words in alphabetical order and gives the words' meanings, forms and pronunciations
conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people
dialogue – n. a conversation between two or more people