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Collocations: A Stroke of Genius

By Judy West, Principal
English That Works, Inc.

Do you have a vested interest or a considered opinion? Is it a foregone conclusion that if you were born or educated outside of the U.S., you will always struggle with your English vocabulary? The phrases highlighted here are collocations: word combinations that make your speech richer and more precise.

Many of us wish to improve our vocabulary, but we wonder what approach to take, what resources to use, or which word lists to consider. We also must balance our need to sound more professional with the use of more sophisticated words and phrases that can make us sound condescending or as if we are showing off or have something to prove. Since many words have subtle differences, it is important to determine which variation of a word is appropriate for a given situation.

Enter collocations—defined by the Oxford Collocations dictionary as, "the way words combine to produce natural sounding speech and writing." Usually these word combinations are intuitive for native speakers who have grown up hearing phrases such as "thoroughly enjoy" and "after careful consideration." When English is not one's first language, however, individuals must become aware of these collocations, learn them, and discover and practice how and when they are used.

Here's a quiz. In each group of potential word combinations, match the word or phrase on the left with the one on the right to make a collocation.

Verb Collocations
1. achieve
2. acquire
3. put in
4. broach
5. trust
6. change
7. cover
8. summon up
9. honor
a. a taste for
b. an appearance
c. implicitly
d. a commitment
e. the energy
f. the subject
g. notoriety
h. imperceptibly
i. ground
j. your interest

Adjective Collocations  
1. consummate
2. widespread
3. dominant
4. constructive
5. workable
6. firm
7. viable
8. short-sighted
9. notable
10. mitigating
a. conviction
b. circumstance
c. view
d. solution
e. alternative
f. factor
g. belief
h. exception
i. criticism
j. professional

Check your answers at the end of this article. How did you do? If you recognized many of the collocations, that's great! Which ones do you use? Can you think of situations in your daily life where any of these collocations would be appropriate? Try them out. Watch others' reactions. You will soon determine if you have used them correctly. As you go about your day, make a point of listening to your colleagues and others. Note phrases they use to express themselves precisely.

Additionally, keep an eye out for collocations in articles or books that you read. Here are some that have appeared in publications you will recognize:

"Anyone who thinks this nomination is a foregone conclusion is sadly mistaken."
(from an article on the Supreme Court in The Philadelphia Inquirer)

"The Snap Judgment on Crime and Unemployment"
(a recent headline in the Wall Street Journal)

"Their involvement in the operation blurred the lines."
(from an article in The New York Times.)

If you are interested in devoting some energy to learn more about collocations and their use, here are some resources to get you on your way to building precision in your vocabulary and to making your language richer and more fluent.

English Collocations in Use: Advanced by Felicity O'Dell and Michael McCarthy (online version)

Oxford Collocations Dictionary by Oxford University Press

The Language of Meetings by Malcolm Goodale

Quiz Answers:

Verb Collocations Adjective Collocations
1. g
2. a
3. b
4. f
5. c
6. h
7. i
8. e
9. d
10. j
1. j
2. g
3. f
4. i
5. d
6. a
7. e
8. c
9. h
10. b

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