Learn collocations to speak natural sounding English

Much of the vocabulary work we do in English Club is around learning collocations, so I thought it might be nice to quickly review what collocations are and why I insist on you learning them!

by Kerin

In this post you’ll learn what a collocation is and why it is important to learn collocations. Don’t forget to try out the quizzes at the end!

What is a collocation?

A collocation is basically a predictable combination of words. It is a combination of two or more words that frequently occur together.

These combinations sound “right” to native English speakers, whereas other combinations can sound unnatural and “wrong”.

What’s an example of a collocation?

If someone says “I felt a rush of anger” they would be understood, but it is not what would ordinarily be said in natural English. We’d say “I felt a surge of anger“. In other words, ‘rush‘ does not collocate with anger in everyday English. Rush collocates with, for example, a mad rush, Christmas rush, halt the rush, avoid, beat, escape the rush, leave in a rush …

Is it important to learn collocations?

Ohhhhh yes!!!

As you become more aware of collocations, and start incorporating them into your study, your English vocabulary will not only grow, you will become more fluent and natural sounding.

Collocations are not just a matter of how adjectives combine with nouns

Collocations can refer to any kind of typical word combination:
  • adverb + adjective: fundamentally different (NOT exactly different)
  • adjective + noun: excruciating pain (NOT excruciating joy)
  • noun + noun: a surge of anger (NOT a rush of anger)
  • noun + verb: dogs bark (NOT dogs shout)
  • verb + noun: commit suicide (NOT make suicide)
  • verb + expression with preposition: burst into song (NOT burst into talking)
  • verb + adverb: fail miserably (NOT fail sadly)

Phrasal verbs and compound nouns can be thought of as collocations

If it helps you, why not consider these lexical items as collocations?! (For example, come up with, adhere to, stock market, market share).

Of course, phrasal verbs and compound nouns can also be collocated (used in combination with other words) such as: come up with a suggestion, run up a bill, play the stock market, carve out market share

Why learning collocations will help you improve your English

You will use the words you know more accurately and you’ll make fewer mistakes

You see! make a mistake, not do a mistake!)

You’ll sound more natural when you speak and write

By saying, for example, “I was in excruciating pain” rather than hard or high pain, you will sound like a fluent user of English

You can vary your speech AND your writing

Instead of repeating overused words like very, nice, good you will be able to exploit a wider, more sophisticated range of vocabulary. Find out here how to stop using boring vocabulary!

You will deepen your comprehension of English and be able to understand the finer meanings, humour and satire

For example, native speakers often create an effect by NOT choosing the expected collocation. An article entitled No place like Rome for example, is a reference to the popular expression there’s no place like home.

Lastly, it is easier for our brains to remember and use language in chunks or blocks rather than as single words.

How to learn collocations

It can be difficult to know which words to collocate especially since natural collocations are not always logical or guessable. There is no logical reason why we say heavy rain rather than strong rain, or make friends rather than get friends

You also have to be able to to know when to use some collocations and when specific collocations are appropriate (in other words, knowing which register to use). For example: compare:

Please submit your paper by May 12th (formal, written)
You have to hand in your paper by May 12th (Neutral, spoken)

Given all of this, what are the best ways to actually learn collocations? …

6 ways to help you learn collocations

  1. Awareness: be aware that collocations exist- try to recognise them when you see or hear them and take note
  2. Chunks: treat collocations as single blocks of language. Learn them TOGETHER. So instead of learning the word ‘surge’, learn ‘a surge of anger’. WRITE THE WORDS DOWN!

3. Read: Reading is absolutely one of the best ways to learn collocations in context. (If you love reading and talking about books, check out our Book Lab course)

4. Imitate: mimic native English speakers and pick up natural collocations along the way

5. Review: revise and try to use what you learn regularly. Practise using new collocations in context as soon as possible after learning them

6. Join English Club! Learning collocations is a huge part of what we do in our English Club! Join us for engaging tasks and join our monthly meet up, led by Kerin Goodall, Cambridge certified English teacher.

Quiz time!

ps. quizzes work best on Google Chrome and are easier to view on a computer or tablet.

Let’s warm up with something nice and easy! “Do” versus “make”
Now match the two parts of these common collocations
Correct the mistake!

Quizzes dedicated to my English Clubbers

Everyone is welcome to have a go at the quizzes below, but be warned! If you haven’t done the English Club session you will find these extremely difficult!

Talking about celebrations, traditions and festivals


Using some of the collocations from the last two quizzes, write a short paragraph describing a festival or celebration from your own country. Share in the comments 👇

Kerin Goodall Founder English Digital Academy

ps. Want to improve your English and move towards English proficiency? Discover all my courses here

2 thoughts on “Learn collocations to speak natural sounding English”

  1. The mid-Lent carnival falls on a Sunday in the middle of the 40 days long Lent period. Lent should be a time of grief ending with the celebration of Easter. Nevertheless, the city of Bergamo celebrates a one-day break with a parade of brightly colored floats playing loud music. They are surrounded of women and men playing joyful dances. Is it inappropriate? Yes it is. However, every year this hundred-years old tradition helps turning on a light on a specific problem of the city: the loud parade ends in a different part of the city every year, right in front of the problem to be solved. There, an old lady made of wood and clothes is burned down as a positive symbol of taking action.

    1. Interesting! (Why is it inappropriate?)
      > 40 day long Lent period and hundred-year old tradition ✅ (not days and years)
      > surrounded BY ✅
      > turning on a light on a specific problem > highlight a specific problem

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