What is a collocation?

The term collocation was coined by the British linguist J.R. Firth (1890-1960) in the 1950s to refer to the common co-occurrence of certain words. He considered that part of the meaning of a word derives from the words with which it is associated with. He is known for the famous quote:

"You shall know a word by the company it keeps."

-Firth, John R.,1957. Modes of meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A collocation is two or more words that often go together and this combination just sound "right" and natural to native English speakers.

A collocation is two or more words that often go together and which sound "right" and natural to native English speakers.

Sounds right Does not sound right
gross negligence bad negligence
safe driver secure driver or risk-free driver

Some important definitions:

Term Definition Example
To collocate (verb) To appear with another word with a higher frequency than by pure chance. The word Babylonian collates with confusion.
Collocation (noun) The combination of two or more words appearing more frequently than by chance. Using collocations properly would make our writing richer and more interesting.
A collocation (noun) A specific example of a collocation. Backlog of work is an example of a collocation.

Why learn collocations?

Your writing will sound more natural and be more easily understood.

Shorter and pithier sentences can be written using the appropriate combination of words.

Subtle differences in meaning and nuances can be better captured using appropriate collocations.

Shorter and more pithy sentences can be written by using appropriate combination of words.

Types of collocation

There are several different types of collocation, which are derived from combinations of verb, noun, adjective, adverb etc. Some of the common combinations are as follows:

Combination Examples
ADJECTIVE + ADVERB apathetic politically, effective enough
ADJECTIVE + NOUN ghastly apparition, eve-of-the-wedding party
ADVERB + ADJECTIVE pneumatically agitated, architecturally creative
ADVERB + ADVERB blisteringly fast, very deliberately
ADVERB + VERB hermetically sealed, intentionally deceive
NOUN + ADJECTIVE bayonet fixed, charges deducted
NOUN + NOUN black market profiteer, amusement arcade
NOUN + VERB appeal succeeds, day dawns
PHRASE no ifs, ands, or buts; hardening of arteries
PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE as fresh as a daisy; from the Dark Ages
VERB + ADJECTIVE look dazed, render defenseless
VERB + ADVERB hesitate momentarily, creep backwards
VERB + NOUN accumulate wisdom, abolish subsidy

Strong and weak collocations

There is some degree of predictability in terms of which words "gel well" and are associated with other words.
In any collocation, one word (named as the head word) will "flash" another word in the mind of a native English speaker. It's possible to predict the second word with knowledge of the head word, with varying degrees of success. Even though this predictability is not 100%, it is much higher than with non-collocates (words which do not collate).

Strong predictability is indicated if the headword collates with very few words and is positioned in the same place (before or after) the other word.
Examples: ballpark estimate, ballpark figure

Weak predictability is indicated if the headword collates with several tens or hundreds of other words. In such case, a reader would not be able to easily guess which other word would collate with the head word.