Collocations are not quite the same as idioms.Whereas idioms are understood to represent a more standard meaning (e.g. ‘round the bend’ = mad; ‘fed up’ = depressed; ‘touch and go’ = uncertain; etc.), collocations are words that have been paired (or grouped) together through continued use. These words have become friends, if you like, and frequently appear in public together.

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For example: if we take the adjective ‘big’, native speakers will mentally assemble a list of appropriate nouns that can follow it:

big surprise
big mistake
big news
big improvement
big building


It follows that there are words that we would not expect to follow the adjective ‘big’:

big happiness (wrong)
big love (wrong)
big power (wrong)


The three examples above are not collocations in English. They sound wrong when spoken and look wrong when written. An adjective that would collocate with the examples above is ‘great’:

great happiness (correct)
great love (correct)
great power (correct)


This is one of the main problems that English learners face. Although it is grammatically acceptable to say, for example, ‘big love’ –it’s a standard phrase, being an adjective followed by a noun – it is semantically unacceptable. We just wouldn’t say it.
English-language experts have “highlighted the importance of collocation as a key to producing natural-sounding language, for anyone learning a foreign language” (Cowie, A.P., English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners, Oxford University Press 1999).

So let’s look at some standard pairings of words in English:

Adjective + noun

As mentioned above, this is a very common collocative type. Consider the adjective ‘heavy’. We can talk about ‘heavy rain’ (a lot of rain at one time), ‘a heavy smoker’ (someone who smokes a lot), ‘heavy traffic’ (many cars and bikes), etc. Or maybe we can use the adjective ‘awful’ (which means ‘very bad’). We can say that it was ‘an awful film’ or complain about the ‘awful heat’ of the summer (we wouldn’t say ‘bad heat’).

Verb + noun

One classic example of a verb collocating with a noun is ‘commit murder’. A person doesn’t ‘do’ or ‘make’ murder – a person ‘commits’ murder. Similarly, we ‘throw a party’. Yes, we can ‘have a party’ too; however ‘throw’ is often collocatively used in this way. The verb ‘take’ has many different collocations. We can ‘take a break’, ‘take an exam’, ‘take our time’, ‘take (someone’s) temperature’, and so on.

Verb + adverb

The verb ‘whisper’ (‘susurro’) is often accompanied by the adverbs ‘softly’ or ‘gently’. The verb ‘complain’ collocates with the adverb ‘bitterly’ (‘amargamente’). ‘Act’ collocates with ‘naturally’.

Adverbs sometimes go before verbs, such as the adverb ‘hardly’(collocative phrases include ‘hardly work’, ‘hardly study’, etc.), ‘deeply’ (‘deeply regret’), ‘fully’ (‘fully appreciate’, ‘fully understand’, ‘fully investigate’) and many more.

Adverb + adjective

Adverbs can be used to modify adjectives. Some common adverb-adjective collocations are ‘utterly stupid’, ‘fully aware’, ‘totally wrong’, ‘completely useless’ (but not ‘completely useful’), etc.

Noun + noun

If we say ‘a bar’, what comes to mind?

a bar of chocolate (correct)
a bar of soap (correct)
a bar of wine (incorrect – we would say ‘wine bar’, with the noun ‘wine’ functioning as an adjective in this phrase)

A round of…?

beers (correct)
applause (correct)

…food? (incorrect)

Noun + verb

What does a dog do? It barks. A lion roars whilst a cat miaows (this is almost onomatopeic – think of the sound a cat makes). Detectives investigate. Policemen hunt (and hopefully catch) criminals. Snow (or rain) falls. The sun shines. And so on.

There are many, many examples of collocations. You will learn more of them if you read as widely as possible, i.e. newspapers, magazines, fiction / non-fiction, etc. Remember that it is easier to recall blocks of words rather than individual words. Collocation is very useful.

Take our blog to see how you do with some common English collocations.

A. Porter

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