The word ‘collocation’.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

by Liz Walter

Can someone invent a new word for ‘collocation’, please? I’ve lost count of the time spent in meetings with marketing colleagues, agonizing over how to advertise the fact that a book is strong on teaching something that most of the world has never heard of.


When collocation is just one feature of the material, there are several possible strategies.  Headings in chapters, subsections and panels can have subheadings, e.g.: Collocations (word partners), Collocations Nouns frequently used with x (insert relevant word here).  Often, the word ‘collocation’ is dispensed with altogether, so a heading or subheading might be something like: Using words together.


None of this is much help when collocation is the primary subject of your book, as with our Collocations for Natural English. Then, it seems, there is no real alternative to using the word itself. The problem with simpler terms such as ‘word partners’ or ‘word pairs’ is that they are not explicit enough, so while on the one hand they may be more accessible to a student who does not know the word ‘collocation’, a teacher could be left wondering if they do actually refer to collocation or to other word relationships.


If we look at what people actually say when they are talking about collocation, we find at the more academic end of the spectrum phrases like: syntactic relations, measure of association, co-occurrence, mutual information, collocational preferences, verbs that operate nouns.  None of these is likely to enlighten anyone who does not already know what a collocation is.


At the other end of the scale, we have formulations such as: two or more words that often go together, natural combinations, putting words together, blocks or chunks of words, relationships between words, all of which explain, to a greater or lesser extent, what a collocation is, but at the same time are slightly vague, and certainly not usable as part of a snappy title.


I’d like to reclaim all the hours spent with designers, poring over images of jigsaw pieces and chain links over the years, attempting a visual representation of something that is so difficult to express in words.  Our Delta book has actual collocations on its front cover – about as explicit as you can get – but it still seems frustrating that there is no truly satisfactory term for such a fundamental aspect of learning fluent English.


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