Help with improving a learner's knowledge of collocations.

I am a native speaker of Spanish and I have been studying English for more than twenty years. I have studied "Traductorado  de Inglés-Español" at an institute in Rosario but I have always had problems with collocations. Can you recommend a book that would be useful to improve that area? I would really appreciate if you can tell me a way to manage this situation. Thank you very much.  

Ana Jacobi

Dear Ana,

Collocations! Yes, what a problem they can be, especially in a field like translation where you have to get it absolutely right. Making sure that the words you put together in English feel 'comfortable' in each others' company, and that they know how to behave grammatically, is no easy task.

I was thinking how tricky even such 'easy' words as 'big', 'large' and 'great' can be. Take for example, the phrase, 'a great deal', meaning 'a lot'. A near equivalent would be 'a good deal'. but, if we say, 'a big deal', the meaning changes. And 'a large deal' is extremely unlikely to occur at all.

But, if the collocation is with 'extent', we find a different patterning. We can say, to a large extent,' and 'to a great extent', but we would not find it appropriate to say, 'to a big extent' or 'to a good extent'.

Most methodology books will tell you that such a 'feel' for words only comes through a great deal (!) of exposure. That's all very well, but what about when you are in doubt? Where do you look? And how can you try to develop this sensitivity? This is your question, of course.

I would like to suggest three reference sources, two books including classroom activities to develop sensitivity to collocation, and a few websites and corpora.

  1. The Macmillan English Dictionary Online.

    All entries contain abundant information about the collocations a given word can enter into.

  2. LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations, by Jimmie Hill and Michael Lewis. 1997. LTP Pubs. 114a Church Rd, Hove, E.Sussex. 

    This is an excellent guide to many of the commoner collocations. It is clearly laid out and written, and easy to access.

  3. The Longman Language Activator, edited by Della Summers, offers a novel approach to dictionary construction. Its most innovative feature is that you can find a specific word if you know a general word with a similar meaning. So, for example, you may not know the word 'limp' but you can find it under the general word 'walk'. What is more, it will give you collocational information too. For example, 'a slight limp' (not a little limp, a small limp etc.).

Now for the books which try to develop collocational sensitivity.

  1. The two books by B.Rudzka, J.Channell, Y.Putseys and P.Ostyn entitled The Words You Need and More Words You Need first published by Macmillan (London) in 1981 have an original way of activating a collocational sense.

    They present texts which contextualize the words they focus on. They then have a section on word study. One important part of this are semantic matrices, or 'componential grids. For example, if you are interested in the collocational differences between 'effective' and efficient', they are presented in a grid:

Students are then set similar grids to complete as part of the exercises.

  1. Vocabulary (new edition 2003) by John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri, Oxford University Press, contains some highly ingenious and creative ways of learning vocabulary, including a section on collocations. This highly practical book has been around for nearly 20 years, and is about to appear in a completely revamped edition. Not to be missed.

    Finally, I am not a Web-wizard, but, if you have the equipment and know-how, you could investigate online corpora by yourself, creating your own concordances which enable you to see for yourself how particular words behave in context. Here are some starting points:
British National Corpus  
American National Corpus
The International Corpus of English

You might also like to try the following dictionary sites:

Macmillan English Dictionary 
Language Dictionaries and Translators 
OneLook Dictionary Search 
Thesaurus ref

I hope at least some of this has been helpful to you, Ana, and I wish you good luck in your collocational explorations.