Image: Library of Congress

Image: Library of Congress

What are they?

Generally speaking collocations are a combination of words that very often occur together, either close to each other or in the same utterance. They can be:

  • Adjectives and nouns (e.g. heavy rain)
  • Adverbs and adjectives (e.g. completely satisfied)
  • Verbs and nouns (e.g. meet deadlines)
  • Verbs and adverbs (e.g. refuse categorically)
  • Noun and noun (e.g. registry office)
Examples of collocations

Examples of collocations

Collocations range from fixed to free: in the first case, only specific combinations of words are usually found together (e.g., rancid butter, fire extinguisher…). In the case of free collocations there will be words that can easily be found in association with many others (e.g. nice weather, nice girl, nice dress…). However, the extent to which individual words collocate with each other can vary according to how reciprocal or non-reciprocal they are. Let’s have a look at an example: in the collocation blonde hair, blonde will not have many words to collocate with (e.g. hair, girl, woman). Hair, on the contrary, will collocate with quite a range of words (e.g. straight, dark, curly…).

Collocations can be exploited on different levels, as shown in the substitution table below. Horizontally, they show how items of language work in combination with others in the same utterance; vertically, they show how various items can replace others that belong to the same word families in the same utterance (e.g. “the firemen” and “the police” are both nouns).


  • Strong tea/coffee
  • Tall tree
  • Heavy rain
  • Rich taste
  • Big mistake
  • Great fun
  • Sweet dreams

Don't collocate:

  • Powerful tea/coffee
  • High tree
  • Weighty rain
  • Deep taste
  • Large mistake
  • Big fun
  • Nice dreams

How useful are they?

Collocations facilitate communication in various ways:

  • Combination of words are easier to recall
  • They foster accuracy
  • They speed up fluency
  • They are easier to learn and memorise 
  • They are more easily refused in different contexts
  • They make speech sound more natural
  • They are learnt as such by native speakers

How can they be taught? 

A good activity to teach collocations is Pelmanism. This is a card game played like Memory.

Two players work together with a set of cards. On each card there is one word from the collocations you would like to teach. They put the cards in front of them facing down and take it in turns to turn two cards over. trying to find the correct collocation. The cards must be put back to their places if the collocation is wrong, otherwise the player who got the correct match will carry on playing till they make a mistake. It is important to remind players that the cards must be put back exactly where they were for the next person to play.

Try these out!

Collocations quiz on 'do' and 'make' >

Collocations quiz on 'time' >

Find out about collocations dictionaries

Collocation dictionaries can facilitate students' acquisition process and make them more autonomous. Other useful dictionaries can be found online.

Onelook >

Thesaurus >

Macmillan >

Or read more about it in a good old-fashioned way

Lewis, M. & Conzett, J. 2000 - Teaching Collocations - LTP

Giulia Revelli is our Director of Studies here at ADC College. If you would like to hear more from her, have a look at our popular Teacher Development courses (eligible for EU funding) or subscribe to our newsletter for more updates about the programme.