This page explains the difficulty of collocation for English language learners.


I want to concentrate in this article on one of the problems that many non-native speakers have with English vocabulary. Namely, in how to put words together to produce phrases that sound natural to native English speakers. This is an aspect of language use called collocation.

Examples of collocation

An example of collocation that many learners of English may be familiar with is the different adjectives that are used to describe a good-looking man and a good-looking woman. We talk of a beautiful woman and of a handsome man, but much more rarely of a beautiful man or a handsome woman.

It is quite possible, in fact, to describe a woman as handsome. However, this implies that she is not beautiful at all in the traditional sense of female beauty. It is rather that she is mature in age, has large features and a certain strength of character.

Similarly, a man could be described as beautiful, but this would usually imply that he had feminine features. Calling a man pretty is most often done pejoratively to suggest effeminacy.

Note: Since I wrote the above text, in 1990, matters have changed. It is much more common to hear men described as beautiful, without any implication of femininity.

In another familiar example of collocation, we talk of high mountains and , but not usually of tall mountains and high trees. Similarly a man can be tall but never high (except in the sense of being intoxicated!), whereas a ceiling can only be high, not tall.

A window can be both tall or high, but a tall window is not the same as a high window. We get old and tired, but we go bald or grey. We get sick but we fall ill. A big house, a large house and a great house have the same meaning, but a great man is not the same as a big man or a large man.

You can make a big mistake or a great mistake, but you cannot make a large mistake. You can be a little sad but not a little happy. We say very pleased and very tiny, but we do not say very delighted or very huge. And so on - there are endless examples of this kind of difficulty for English learners.

@ The problem for the learner of English is that there are no collocation rules that can be learned. ~ The native English speaker intuitively makes the correct collocation, based on a lifetime's experience of hearing and reading the words in set combinations. The non-native speaker has a more limited experience and may frequently collocate words in a way that sounds odd to the native speaker.


Here are some questions to test your knowledge of collocations:

1. What is the difference between a high window and a tall window?

A high window is a window that is located a long way from the ground, whereas a tall window measures a long way from top to bottom.

2. Look at the following pairs of phrases and in each case choose the most usual collocation:

  • strong tea / powerful tea
  • a strong car / a powerful car
  • a strong computer / a powerful computer
  • a strong drug /a powerful drug

We talk of strong tea, a powerful car and a powerful computer. A drug can be both strong and powerful.

3. Now look at the following words and phrases and decide if we do them or make them. For example, do we do a mess or make a mess?

a mess
a mistake
the housework
the beds
a noise
a wish
a test
a promise
a job
someone a favour
your best
a speech
the shopping
a telephone call
your hair (i.e. comb it or make it tidy

These are the usual collocations with make or do:

make a mess
make a mistake
do the housework
make or do the beds
make a noise
make a wish
do a test
make a promise
do a job
do someone a favour
do your best
make a speech
do the shopping
do damage
make a telephone call
do your hair (i.e. comb it or make it tidy

4. Finally some odds and ends. See if you know the correct collocations in answer to the following questions?

a. The opposite of strong tea is weak tea. What is the opposite of strong cigarettes, a strong wind, a strong smell?

b. What is the usual way of describing someone who smokes a lot?

  • a big smoker
  • a strong smoker
  • a hard smoker
  • a heavy smoker
  • a furious smoker

c. Someone can be very tired, but not very awake or very asleep. What do we say instead?

d. What is the opposite of sweet wine?

e. Which of the following are the usual collocations?

  • completely beautiful
  • incredibly beautiful
  • absolutely beautiful
  • extremely beautiful
  • totally beautiful
  • utterly beautiful
  • thoroughly beautiful

f. The following collocations are unusual as synonyms for to enter. Can you sort them out?

  • to get into a building (she crossed the street and got into the building)
  • to get on a car (he opened the door and got on the car)
  • to go in a ship (she went in a ship going to China )

Odds and ends. Here are the usual collocations:

  • mild cigarettes, a light wind, a faint smell
  • a heavy smoker
  • wide awake; sound asleep or fast asleep
  • dry wine
  • incredibly beautiful; extremely beautiful (and possibly: utterly beautiful)
  • to get in a car; to get on a ship; to go into a building ( to get into a building implies some difficulty in doing so)

Important note

Collocation has nothing to do with correctness. There is nothing grammatically wrong with saying, for example, a large mistake. It's just that this is much less common and sounds less natural than a big mistake, as this ngram comparison shows.

More resources

Read how you can use a concordancer to find out the strong collocates of any particular word.

Do an interactive quiz on the topic: Collocation 1 | Collocation 2.

My response to a site visitor with a question about collocation.