Learning Collocations for Effective Writing

In a previous post, I talked about the components of word knowledge, which include meaning, orthography, pronunciation, part of speech, morphology, register, collocations, and connotation. Today I’d like to elaborate on collocations, which I think is one of the most challenging components of word knowledge.

Learning Collocations

Collocations are words that frequently occur together. As a language learner myself, I try to pay attention to collocations as I read, and I think our students should be encouraged to notice collocations as well, particularly when they learn individual words. Knowing frequent collocates of the target word will tremendously expand learners’ vocabulary; as a result, it will help them increase their comprehension in reading and become more fluent in speaking and writing. Sometimes language learners make mistakes called literal translations because they are not familiar with the collocations that exist in the target language for a particular word. For example, look at the following collocations in these four different languages and notice that different adjectives are used with the word “tea” to describe the same meaning:

English: strong tea, weak tea

Italian: strong tea, long tea

Japanese: dark tea, thin tea

Russian: strong tea, liquid tea

Common Types of Collocations

Below is a list of some common types and examples of collocations in English academic texts:

Adverb + Adjective

Examples: completely satisfied, fully aware, downright rude, very little, totally wrong

 Adjective + Noun

Examples: major problem, sufficient information, common knowledge, different approach, personal experience

Noun + Noun

Examples: piece of cake, key issue, chocolate bar, water bottle, bird’s eye

 Verb + Adverb

Examples: depend largely, fully appreciate, effectively communicate, examine thoroughly, hold tightly

Verb + Noun

Examples: resolve the problem, present information, gain knowledge, take an approach, lack experience

Verb + Preposition

Examples: rely on, deal with, consist of, contribute to, respond to

Prepositional Phrases

Examples: on the other hand, in other words, in addition to, in that case, from this perspective

Online Collocation Dictionaries

Students can also consult online collocation dictionaries. Two of my favorite collocation dictionaries are:

Free Online Collocations Dictionary



One way to learn collocations is using a computer tool called concordances. A concordance is a collection of sentences that have the same word or phrase. By examining concordances, students can see how a target word is used in authentic sentences and what words are used with the target word.

Below is a snapshot of the concordance sentences containing the word alleviate. The sentences were taken from the PolyU Language Bank at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.


Notice how out of seven sentences, in three the word alleviate was used with the word problem. Therefore, you can say that alleviate the problem are collocations.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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2 Responses to Learning Collocations for Effective Writing

  1. Molly Exten says:

    I love the tea examples! I am going to use this the next time I introduce the concept of collocations, thank you!

  2. Jean Arnold says:

    Thanks for the examples of how collocates vary from language to language. I remember a Chinese person trying to order “black meat” in a chicken restaurant. I mean, you’ve got ‘white meat’, so the counterpart should be ‘black meat’, right? Collocates are tricky, because they’re not always what you expect.

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