Introduction to Collocations


Collocations are groups of two or more words that are commonly-used together. These groups of words are largely idiomatic. The “right” and “wrong” words to use in a given collocation have evolved through custom and usage as the English language itself has evolved. Because of this, you should think of collocations as whole units of language, rather the individual words that they are composed of.


By their very nature, collocations do not follow grammar rules that you can memorize. For example, you would order “fast food” for lunch and develop a “quick fix” to a problem. However, you wouldn’t order “quick food” or come up with a “fast fix.” Both pairs are grammatically correct, but the former “sounds” correct to native English speakers while the latter does not.


To begin learning English collocations, it can be helpful to break them down into categories. There are two reasons for this. First, there are countless collocations in the English language. Taking the process in smaller chunks will keep you from being overwhelmed. Second, creating associations makes it much easier to remember and apply the collocations that you have studied. Two common ways to group collocations are by keyword and by topic. You can also categorize collocations by the parts of speech they are composed of, which is the approach we’ll be taking next week.


Finally, keep in mind that some collocations are also idiomatic phrases. When taken as a whole, these collocations have figurative meanings unconnected to their literal meanings. “Break a leg,” for instance, is a customary way of wishing someone success in a stage performance. (If you are unfamiliar with this type of English idiom, check out of previous blogs on the topic.) As a general rule, a collocation that sounds bizarre or nonsensical when taken literally has a commonly-understood idiomatic meaning among native English speakers.


That’s all for this lesson on collocations. Next time we’ll examine the ways that adjectives, adverbs, nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech are combined to form collocations. We’ll also provide some commonly-used examples of each combination.