Vocabulary and Collocations

What is a collocation?

A collocation is a group of words that usually go together. For example, in English, we usually say 'heavy rain'. It's correct grammatically to say 'strong rain' or 'big rain', but both of these sound completely strange. A native English speaker would never say 'big rain'. If you use the normal collocation ('heavy rain') your English will sound a lot better and more natural and it will be easier for native speakers to understand you. Collocations are very, very important.

It's very difficult to give a list of collocations, because there are so many. In fact, I think that almost every word in English has other words that it usually goes with.

Set phrases, verb patterns, and idioms are really just strong examples of collocations too. For example, in English, we say 'get married to someone'. Many languages use 'with' after 'marry' (which certainly seems more logical!). But this isn't the normal way in English. If you learn the whole phrase ('get married to someone'), then you won't make this mistake.

How to improve your use of collocations:

  1. Notice collocations. When you're reading, look at which words go together. If you have to write about a topic, try to find a newspaper article or a magazine article about that topic and look at the phrases that the journalist uses. You'll often see the same phrases again and again. It's a good idea to learn these.
  2. Use a collocation dictionary. I don't think there's one online, but the Oxford Collocations Dictionary is a very useful book. You can look up any word and see which other words are usually used with it.
  3. If you don't have a collocation dictionary, a learner's dictionary (like this one by Oxford, free online) will give you several good example phrases for each word, as well as telling you which prepositions and so on the word is used with.
  4. When you study vocabulary, learn whole phrases, not single words. For example, it's better to learn 'to insist on doing something' rather than just 'insist'. If you need to learn 'effort', make sure you study 'make an effort'.
If you're interested in reading more about this, here's an academic paper on the subject (in advanced English).

Learning vocabulary:

Hopefully I've convinced you that it's a good idea to learn phrases (groups of words) rather than single words. But what's the best way to do this? When I ask students how they learn vocabulary, they often say 'by reading' or 'by watching TV'. That's not what I mean. It's true you can learn new words by seeing them often when you read, but I think you should also study new words seriously.

1: Flashcards
I find this is really the best way to learn new words by a long way. You can use paper flashcards (make or buy them) or a flashcard computer program. I use Anki. Write the new English word (in a phrase, of course!) on one side and either the translation in your language or the meaning in easy English on the other side. Then test yourself often. It's best to look at the meaning and try to remember the new phrase, rather than the opposite.

2: Record the words onto your computer or phone
If you learn well by listening, this might work for you. To record, say the meaning in your language, then wait a few seconds, then say the English phrase. When you play the CD you should try to say the English phrase in the space. Then listen to check. (This does have a few problems. –It's best if you can ask someone to check your pronunciation, for example. Also usually you get to know the words at the beginning better).

Learning vocabulary and collocations should help you improve your English speaking and writing a lot. Good luck!

(Click here to go back to the main page about ideas on improving your English).

Would you like more Perfect English Grammar?

1: Sign up for my free email newsletter and get my free ebook '10 Really, Really Useful Phrasal Verbs'.
Sign up for my free newsletter here!

Email Address

First Name


2: Buy my book!

'A' and 'The' Explained