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What Is Collocation?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated: May 23, 2024

A collocation occurs when two words group together so often that their grouping cannot be just a random occurrence. It is, therefore, an element of linguistics and is specific to any one language. This means the collocation of two words such as ‘lily livered’ in another language will have no meaning, while it means 'cowardly' and 'weak' in English.

Collocation is derived from the Latin words ‘collocationem’ and ‘collocatio,’ which are noun forms of the Latin verb meaning ‘to arrange.’ It has been used as a piece of linguistic terminology since 1940 and is deemed a part of linguistic government. In this sense, it governs how certain words interact with one another when placed together.

Idioms are not to be confused with collocations. Collocations are lexical units, whereas idioms are not. This is because idioms are non-compositional. This means that their meaning is not directly derived from the words that compose them; for example, no element of ‘kick the bucket’ actually means ‘to die.’ Collocations, on the other hand, are part or wholly compositional, so at least one word in them does actually contribute to its meaning.

Nouns, verbs and adjectives can all form elements of a collocation. Nouns are usually present, but as with much of English, this rule is quite often broken. Collocation, therefore, governs which verbs, nouns and adjectives are able to combine and those that are not.

There are many examples of verb and noun collocations. These include ‘take’ and ‘medicine’ and ‘invite’ and ‘wedding.’ Adjective and noun collocations include combining ‘final’ or ‘last’ with ‘straw,’ but only ‘last’ can be combined with ‘stand.’ Nouns can be combined with other nouns, and two adjectives can also be collocated.

The ability to collocate is an important element of English literature. Charles Dickens, for example, was a master of creating and using a good collocation. His were often colorful and well-chosen elements of the 4 million words he published during his lifetime. One example of his collocations is ‘curious indifference’ as seen in “Bleak House.” He also used such collocations as ‘beef-faced’ and the alliterative ‘lazy legs.’

Learning how to understand and construct a collocation is a difficult element of second language acquisition. This is even the case when languages appear to be relatively similar, such as with German and English. Different collocations have developed because each language has grown and changed with its culture and the experiences of people within that culture. Efforts are being made with German and Polish, for example, to develop collocation dictionaries to provide adequate translations.

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