Collocation of words

Not long ago, I came across the concept of (linguistic) collocation in Fowler’s. I had noticed the phenomenon before, but I hadn’t known it had a name. Fowler’s defines it as the habitual co-occurrence of individual words, giving such examples as:

  • Tweedledum and Tweedledee
  • spick and span
  • fish and chips.

These collocations of words separated by and appear in the same order: when did you last hear someone ask for chips and fish?

Other examples are:

  • this and that
  • to and fro
  • checks and balances.

Another type of collocation involves a word and its modifier (e.g. adjectives and adverbs). Fowler’s gives:

  • innocent bystander
  • far-reaching consequences
  • habitual liars.

Other examples are:

  • readily available
  • wanton destruction
  • inextricably linked
  • blissful ignorance – yet blissfully unaware
  • blithering idiot.

Collocations aren’t limited to constructions with nouns. Verbs and other parts of speech can also join in the fun:

  • hasten to add
  • pervert the course of justice
  • apropos of nothing.

Fowler’s describes collocations as elementary examples of an adhesive process which is part of the natural machinery of the language. This means that over time, certain words become stuck together and it sounds weird to swap the order or to use a different word because we’re so used to hearing the same order all the time.

Finding collocations

If you read a lot, especially the unedited texts of social media and blogs, you should come across collocations reasonably frequently.

You can use the Google Books Ngram Viewer to check that the phrases you find are indeed collocations by seeing how frequently they have appeared in books since 1800 compared to how frequently one of the words appears with other words. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Hasten to add

I entered hasten to ∗_VERB as my terms to find things that people hasten to do and searched the English (2019) corpus, which includes British and American English from 1800 to 2019. Until the late 1800s, all sorts of things were hastened to be done, but then hasten to add took a sharp upturn to become – and remain – the most popular thing to hasten to do.

hasten to *_VERB

If you’re going to use hasten to add, you’d better hasten to use it soon: it looks like it’s going out of fashion.

Blithering idiot

Most things (nouns) described as blithering complete; utter (used to express annoyance or contempt) (Oxford Dictionary of English) seem to be idiots. I checked this on Google Ngrams. I used the search term blithering *_NOUN, which searches for all nouns modified by blithering. It turns out I was right.

blithering *_NOUN

It’s interesting to see what other things can be blithering; none of them seem complimentary.

Over to you

I’m listing more examples on this page:

If you can think of a good example of a collocation, share it in the comments, and it might just make the collocations page!

References

  • Butterfield, Jeremy (2015) Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English, fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Referred to as Fowler’s.

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