Vocabulary and Collocations

By : Carl Ozan

Summer 2019

Vocabulary learning is central to language acquisition, but according to Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) collocations are at the center of language acquisition which improve speech, listening comprehension and writing skills. Learning Collocations is a challenging aspect of SLA and is a critical element of communicative competence and the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of collocations makes it even more arduous. Considering the learners’ needs, our school follows a skill-based general English syllabus in which comprehension and production of the language are vital for the learners’ success and according to Carther and McCarthy (1998) collocations are important both for comprehension and production, all the reason for me to teach this subject in my class. I have personally observed that not only do students who commit themselves to learning more collocational phrases outperform other students both in writing and speaking, but also these associations assist the learning in committing these words to memory for longer retention, which is also why I became interested in this subject

1.1 Collocation

Vocabulary knowledge involves considerably more than just knowing the meaning of a given word in isolation; it also involves knowing the words that tend to co-occur with it (Celce-Murcia 1993, p: 292). These patterns, or collocations, consist of pairs or groups of words that co-occur with very high frequency and are important in vocabulary learning as “ the meaning of a word has a great deal to do with the words with which it commonly associates.” (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992, p: 69).

“Collocations teach students expectations about which sorts of language can follow from what has preceded’’ (Carther & McCarthy, 1998, p. 75)

1.2 Lexical Collocation VS Grammatical Collocation

Collocations fall into two main syntactic groups. They may be either Grammatical Collocations or Lexical Collocations (Lewis 2000). Grammatical collocations are those in which a noun, verb, or adjective frequently co-occurs with a grammatical item, usually a preposition. Examples are excuse for, bring about, by chance, etc. Lexical colocations do not contain grammatical words, but consist of combinations of full lexical items. When discussing lexical collocations (LC) it is necessary to focus on their form, meaning, use and pronunciation.

1.3 Form

Collocations can be divided into various categories considering different aspects. In one categorization, according to Benson et al. (1986a), there are several different types of lexical collocations as follows:

Verb (donation creation or activation) + Noun (pronoun or prep. Phrase)

Make an impression
Verb (meaning eradication or nullification) + Noun

Demolish a house
Adjective + Noun

Strong tea
Noun +Verb

Bombs explode
Noun +Noun

Generation gap
Adverb + Adjective

Incredibly hilarious
Verb + Adverb

Argue heatedly

As shown above, lexical collocations are usually treated as formed by two lexical elements, even though they are often associated with optional additional grammatical options such as articles, quantifiers or possessives (e.g. make AN impression). There are also eight major kinds of grammatical collocations which shall not be explored in depth here as the focus of the article is on lexical collocations, yet the following example will shed more light on the matter:

Have a significant effect on sth

1.4 Meaning and Use

As far as meaning is concerned, there is an arbitrary relationship between the words which constitute collocations, rendering some combinations of words sound “right” to native English speakers and some others unnatural. According to Woolard: “there is no specific reason behind the words collocating” (2000, p: 30). On the other hand, as McCarthy (2008) suggests, de-lexicalized words may suggest different meanings from their literal meaning depending on the words with which they are combined. For instance, in spite of their literal meaning, the verb “make” in make a paper airplane and make a wish differs from each other as they are used in different contexts. Taking my first language, Farsi (Persian), into account, I should also add that while the meaning of some collocations are easy to grasp (DO MISTAKE/WRONG: make a mistake), there are also some confusing collocations (CATCH DIET: go on a diet) and I believe this confusion in meaning stems from the literal and figurative use of language.

“Figurative language is omnipresent in everyday conversational discourse, and it is also an essential part of collocations.”
(Lakoff and Johnson, 2011, p. 4)
Bearing these in mind, collocations are categorized into four groups according to their collocational strengths (Hill, 2000, p. 63):

1.4.1 Unique and Strong Collocations

Only few words collocate with particular words. For instance, although the word foot is a terminal part of the vertebrate, in the collocation foot the bill, it has a specific meaning as ‘‘to pay’’. In this sense, this word has a unique use.
On the other hand, there some other collocations which are not unique yet have almost a unique meaning. These collocations are considered strong ones. In the example of express a wish, we see a strong collocation because very few words can collocate with the noun wish.

1.4.2 Medium-Strength Collocations

According to Hill ‘‘medium-strength collocations make up a large part of what we say and write’’ (Hill, 2000, p. 64). To put it simply, they are common. Collocations formed with verbs such as make, do, keep, are some of the examples of medium-strength collocations.

1.4.3 Weak Collocations

In terms of frequency, weak collocations can be considered the most prevalent ones as they can collocate with plenty of words. To illustrate, ‘‘many things can be long or short, cheap or expensive, good or bad’’ (Hill, 2000, p. 64). They can also be found in other languages commonly as most adjectives can be combined with many nouns.

1.4.4 De-lexicalized Verbs

De-lexicalized verbs, such as have, take, or make are also common verbs, which constitute a large part of the language, and they are generally used with many words to form collocations. However, they have very little meaning of their own when they collocate with other words. Therefore, in such structures, the words collocating with them carry most of the meaning. At the same time, they have strong generative power. As an example, consider get:
Become more of some characteristic get older
Change in life which is recognized officially get married
Receive get a loan, get a present
Move to another place get in, get out
July 3, 2019