Natural English and Collocation



When my lecturer went home after completing her master program in the UK, she brought some interesting stories. One of them was about her experience in doing the written assignments. Her supervisor complaint of her unnatural writing. She usually made mistake in using words when expressing the ideas. Very often, she used the words that were out of context. It was literally correct but contextually wrong.

As learners of English as foreign language, we often made such this mistake. Our limited knowledge of English vocabulary often causes this. We don’t live in English-speaking country, therefore, we often don’t know how a word is put correctly based on the context. Context does matter in this case.

Let’s consider some examples.

We usually say fast cars or fast food instead of saying quick cars or quick food. On the contrary we have to say a quick glance or a quick meal instead of saying a fast glance or a fast glance.

To cope with this problem we have to study the branch of vocabulary study in English which is called collocation.

A collocation is “a pair or group of words that are often used together.” (Mc Carthy and O’Dell).  “Two words are collocates if they occur together with more than chance frequency” (Thronburry, 2002). As mentioned above the most frequent collocate of  fast are cars and food. So we will immediately say fast cars and fast foods instead of saying quick cars and quick foods.

Fortunately, the advent of vocabulary study enables us to trace the collocation words easily. Today’s dictionaries provides us with accurate information about a word’s frequency and its typical collocations, as well as supplying authentic examples of word in context. This advent is due to the development of what is so-called corpus linguistics. A corpus (plural corpora) is a collection of texts that has been assembled for the purposes of language study (Thornburry, 2002). Before the advent of corpora, teachers must rely on his intuitions about the way words are actually used.  The number of corpus can be traced virtually in here and here.

There are at least three benefits of learning collocations;

  1. they can give us the most natural way to say something; smoking is strictly forbidden is more natural than smoking is strongly forbidden.
  2. they give us alternative ways of saying something, which may be more colorful/expressive or more precise; instead of repeating It was very cold and very dark, we can say It was bitterly cold and pitch dark.
  3. they can improve our style in writing; instead of poverty causes crime, we can say poverty breeds crime.

Alright, that’s all for today. Happy study 🙂


  1. Thornbury, Scott. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Essex: Longman.
  2. McCarthy, Michael and Felicity O’Dell. 2005. English Collocation in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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