Collocations: the basics

by | May 12, 2020

Collocations are words that people often use together – much more often than by chance. They are the key to speaking natural sounding English. Here are some examples:

  • We were delayed by heavy traffic. (= a lot of traffic)
  • I dropped a few hints about my birthday present. (= gave people a few hints)

Some collocations are rather idiomatic: you need to learn the words together because you wouldn’t be able to guess them:

  • He didn’t want to attract attention.
  • They have a very close friendship.
  • She was bitterly disappointed when she failed the exam.

In some cases, it is not wrong to use a different word combination, but a good collocation can sound more stylish than a simple, common word:

  • I struck up a conversation with the man in the next seat. (instead of started a conversation)
  • The team suffered a crushing defeat in its last match. (instead of very bad defeat)

In some cases, combinations are fixed and using a different combination would be considered a mistake in an exam:

  • She loves to tell jokes. (not say jokes)
  • He has committed a lot of crimes(not done a lot of crimes)

You need to be particularly careful with common verbs like make, do, go and have. Here are a few examples that learners often get wrong:

  • Anna made a mistake in her calculations.
  • We have to do (or take) an exam next week.
  • I usually do my homework in the evening.
  • Lee goes swimming on Mondays and does yoga on Fridays.
  • Do you have a shower every day?

When you learn new words try to learn their collocations so that you can use them in natural sentences. Good learners’ dictionaries of English often highlight them to help you, so look out for this when you look up a word.


Learn more about this topic in our Vocabulary Boost book - only $2.99!

Written by English Language Experts

Phrases for Conversations in English
Liz Walter

Liz Walter

Liz Walter is a freelance lexicographer, teacher and writer, living in Cambridge, UK. She worked for many years on Cambridge University Press's range of ELT dictionaries and now works with Kate Woodford on books about the English language. Her other interests include politics, growing vegetables and family holidays in her camper van. She tweets at @LizJWalter