Collocations need not be arbitrary

“On the whole, delexicalized verbs are a good way of introducing the concept of collocation to learners of any L1 background. I usually start with make/do and show how one goes with homework while the other goes with mistake (I did my homework; I made a lot of mistakes). Why is it this way and not the other way around? Because words have collocations – they prefer the company of certain other words.(Selivan, 2018:28, emphasis added)

The quote above, from a book published in 2018, reflects a pervasive view in the literature that collocations are arbitrary, that is, there is no particular reason why words “prefer the company of certain other words”, they just do.

Liu (2010) identifies this view of collocation-as-arbitrary as wide-spread amongst scholars, he also demonstrates that it is a common assumption in published teaching materials. Of the books, studies and websites on teaching collocations he observes collocation exercises as mainly noticing and memorising fixed units or in other words form focused exercises.

Example of such exercises are:

“identifying or marking collocations in a passage or in collocation dictionaries; reading passages with collocations highlighted or marked; filling in the blanks with the right word in a collocation; choosing or matching correct collocates; translating collocations from L2 back into L1 or vice versa; and memorization-type activities like repetition and rehearsal” (Liu, 2010:21)

There were fewer exercises on linking collocation forms to their meanings.

In addition to overlooking the motivated aspects of collocations, learners also miss the chance to generalise what they learn (Wray, 2000). That is, collocations also need to be analysed if students are to make the most of them in new situations of use.

To take the examples of “make” and “do”, the core meaning of “make” is create, which is a process that is purposeful and/or more effortful than the core meaning of “do” of completion/the finishing of something, which focuses on the end result of an activity rather than on any effort in the process of that activity. Understanding these core meanings can throw light on the following use of “did a mistake”:

“But I did a mistake in talking about it, you know, the last time and recently”

The larger context of this is from a spoken news report:

We could speculate that in using “did a mistake” Hilary Clinton was implying that in her “exhausted” state the “misstatement” was the opposite of a purposeful lie. It was just one of many activities she did that day which happened to be an error.

This can also be seen in another example from COCA – “If I do a mistake, I’m cooked”.

The context is from a written publication this time, although the language in question is in reported form:

three minutes, sometimes the whole roll — eleven minutes. It has an advantage: It takes you to the real tempo of life. Most movies are shot rather quickly and in a way where you can manipulate your reality because of the amount of coverage ” — shooting a scene from many different angles so that the director can choose among them in the editing room. ” Here my manipulation is quite different. I have to build it in with the lighting, with the framing. It requires much more attention at this stage. If I do a mistake, I’m cooked, ” he says with a laugh. # Wings’ visual style may be old-fashioned at heart, but its sound is high-tech all the way. Besides the six channels of top-notch stereo sound broadcast through the theater speakers, Wings audiences will hear two channels of three-dimensional sound through a special headset called the Personal Sound Environment (PSE) distributed to each moviegoer. Developed by Imax affiliate Sonics Associates of Birmingham, Alabama, the PSE incorporates both IMAX 3-D glasses and tiny speakers mounted between (COCA MAG: Omni, 1994, emphasis added)

The person is talking about a number of steps in their work routine in shooting a movie. The use of “do” here is to signal that any disastrous mistake is not to be blamed on the person considering all the other things he has to juggle.

Note that I could only find 3 uses of “do a mistake”, of which 2 are shown here (the third one I can’t offer any speculation on as I suspect more context needs to be chased up than that provided by COCA).

This blog was inspired by a question from a student about why a text had “in many respects” rather than “in many aspects”. I went onto COCA to have a look but could not discern any useful explanation. I just told the student that “aspects” does not seem to prefer “in many” compared to “respects”! Only later when I thought about the root word in common “spect” (meaning see) did a arguably useful explanation present itself – “in many respects” implies that the [re-seeings] have already been understood in some way. While “in many aspects” the reader may not yet know what these [partial-seeings] may be. These meanings could match up with the observation that “in many respects” often comes at the end of a clause or sentence while “in many aspects” may tend to come at the beginning of a clause or sentence.

Thanks for reading.


Davies, M. (2008). Corpus of contemporary American English online. Retrieved from

Liu, D. (2010). Going beyond patterns: Involving cognitive analysis in the learning of collocations. TESOL Quarterly, 44(1), 4-30.

Selivan, L. (2018). Lexical Grammar: Activities for Teaching Chunks and Exploring Patterns. Cambridge University Press.

Wray, A. (2000). Formulaic sequences in second language teaching: Principle and practice. Applied linguistics, 21(4), 463-489.


20 thoughts on “Collocations need not be arbitrary

  1. Good stuff, Mura.

    First, good to draw attention to Liu’s (2010) observation that most published material on teaching collocations adopts a ‘collocation-as-arbitrary’ view and thus concentrates on “noticing” and memorising fixed units. Apart from showing a poor grasp of the construct of ‘noticing’, those responsible for these materials fail to properly explore colloca

  2. Sorry, I hit the wrong keys! I was saying: those who focus on the kinds of collocation exercises listed by Liu fail to explore collocations in the way that Liu and Wray, among others, suggest and this leads to a much weaker approach to teaching collocations than would otherwise be the case. Seliven, like other so-called experts in the so-called lexical approach, doesn’t seem to have understood the contributions of Pawley and Syder, or of Pinker in his ‘Words and rules’ & ‘The stuff of thought’ books, for example, which show just how lmited the ”that’s just how it is’ view of English is.

    1. hi Geoff

      nice to get a comment from you : )

      yes the Liu paper makes a good case for trying to re-balance teaching collocations towards form-meaning links and away from the dominant form only learning of memorising & noticing;

      he does mention caveats such as learner proficiency, individual differences and complexity level of any cognitive analysis


      1. You mention ‘the motivated aspects of collocations’ and it’s Wray’s use of the construct of motivation which is so interesting. “Motivated” collocation is used in contrast to “arbitary” collocation. In his 2011 article ‘Cognitive Linguistic approaches to teaching vocabulary: Assessment and integration’, Frank Boers, talking about cognitive linguistics, says

        “In this line of thought, linguistic phenomena are considered to be ‘motivated’. Some things are more likely to happen in language than others because they are more congruent with habitual human perceptual and cognitive experience. If language were not motivated that way, we might not find “The table was being run around” slightly odd. At least one of the reasons why we find this statement odd is its incongruence with the figure–ground organisation we habitually apply to our perception of scenes. We tend to select as figure of a scene the thing that draws our attention most, and that is typically something that moves or that is animate. If language were not motivated, we would not be momentarily puzzled by “A glass of alcohol
        containing wine, please”. That is because the specified information in this utterance is at odds with the way we organise categories around prototypical members, whose characteristics are clearcut and therefore require no further clarification. It is the peripheral members of the category that invite modifiers, not the central members. If motivation did not play a part in language development, there would be no reason why “Shall I give you a foot with that?” has not become an institutionalised offer to help someone. “Shall I give you a hand?” has stood a better chance at
        becoming institutionalised because of our shared knowledge that we tend to use our hands.” ….. and so on.

        In the same article, Boers explores how this motivated view of language in general and formulaic language in particular can help teaching. For example, he suggests that idioms and phrasal verbs can be made easier to learn

        “by showing how these instantiate common conceptual metaphors. Expressions such as “Simmer down”, “He blew up at me”, “He’s hot under the collar”, “She was fuming”, “He’s blowing off steam” and “Don’t add fuel to the fire” can all be categorised as instantiating the metaphors THE BODY IS A CONTAINER FOR THE EMOTIONS and ANGER IS HEAT. (It is customary in Conceptual Metaphor Theory to use small capitals to refer to conceptual metaphors.) Idioms can also be categorised according to their source domain, that is, the experiential domain in which they are/were used in their literal sense. For example, “Clear the decks”, “On an even keel”, “Give someone a wide berth”, “Walk the plank”, “Take on board”, “Out of your depth” and “A leading light” can all be traced back to seafaring. Additional stimuli for cognitive engagement can be given. Learners can be asked to propose reasons why a certain conceptual metaphor ‘makes sense’. For instance, it seems natural to talk about emotions such as anger in terms of heat, because of the physiological changes that coincide with passionate emotions. Learners can also be asked to make comparisons with their L1 to see if the metaphors are shared (Deignan, Gabrys & Solska 1997). They can be asked to propose reasons why a certain source domain is drawn upon strikingly often in the target language. For example, the abundance of seafaring expressions in English can easily be motivated with reference to Britain’s history as a seafaring nation.”…. and so on.

        Boers is particularly good at reviewing research on the learning and teaching of collocations and idioms. I recommend Boers and Lindstromberg (2012) Experimmental and intervention studies on formulaic sequences in a second language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 83-110.

      2. thanks for the ref Geoff, i recall reading Boers and Lindstromberg (2012) sometime ago will need to refresh this;
        i mentioned in a tweet that Columbia School linguistics (another functional approach and something I have looked at in some blogs) is also worth looking into to help fashion some pedagogical knowledge

  3. Very useful post, Mura.

    While I wouldn’t advocate for most English learners to get into Structural Functional Grammar, collocation might be one of the reasons for teachers to get into it. It does help think about what the single word does at the clause level and, logically, think about the likely collocated based on the function.

    Just my tuppence worth.

    1. hi Marc,
      yes there are levels to how complex an analysis can get;

      i was trying to explain to a pre-intermediate class the extended meanings of the basic meanings of the prepositions of place – in/on/at – some were more confused, some got it – can’t win em all!

      thanks for commenting

  4. Thanks so much for this.

    ‘Make a cake’, ‘make a mess’, ‘make a fuss’ that all seemed to fit your explanation nicely. Then I started thinking about ‘make the bed’ and I felt less sure. Until I remembered working as a hospital cleaner many many years ago and having to answer the question ‘Have you done the beds yet?’ – i.e. have you done whatever needs to be done to them so that we can tick them off our list and go onto the next job. Oof.

    I use collocation work to try and help my EFL students get a feel for what is common use of language and what is more creative, something that is notoriously difficult for them. After doing a standard collocation exercise of finding the odd one out, i.e. which adjective is not habitually used to describe a noun such as ‘eyebrows’, ‘complexion’ and ‘figure’. We then look at short descriptions in literary texts and see what conclusions can be drawn. In a description such as ‘My wife is beautiful. She has a smooth, flawless complexion, subtle, curiously expressive eyebrows, and a slender figure’ taken from a short story written by Graham Swift, learners can see that this description (whilst perhaps unusually concentrated) is for the most part made up of common collocations. But not entirely. From the previous collocation exercise they have seen that ‘subtle’ is unusual in this context and so Swift’s skill depends upon his artful mix of banal and personal language use. This of course has implications for students’ own writing. If native writers are allowed to do this, is there any sound pedagogical reason that EFL writers should not have the same leeway?

    Voilà mon grain de sel – to be taken with a pinch.

    1. hi Alison
      thanks for those great examples; it is important to note that any explanations for collocational meaning is necessarily made after the fact which means generating such meanings is relevant for comprehension uses but not necessarily applicable to production purposes.

  5. An example I heard about 2 minutes after reading this … Rebecca Ferguson talking about Tom Cruise on Kermode and Mayo: I have no idea how he get so many films done.

  6. Hi Mura,

    I’m honoured to have my quote used to illustrate a pervasive view in the literature. The fact that this view is also shared by many scholars, according to Liu, shows that the author of the said book is not as misguided as some commentators here would have you believe! 😉

    Cognitive linguistics is fascinating and there are a couple of exercises in my book informed by it as well as the work of Frank Boers – look up, for example, exercise 7.9 in your free copy. You will see that it mentions metaphorical meanings of prepositions of place, which some students would find helpful – some, as you acknowledge. Unfortunately more ideas likes couldn’t be included or, to coin a phrase, are outside the scope of the book – this would require a whole book of its own!

    Naturally, learners will have to have seen a few exemplars with AT or IN before drawing – or being guided to draw – any useful generalisations, such as the ones you suggest, which are based on the alleged ‘core ‘meanings’, if word meaning is viewed from a monosemic bias. Likewise, learners can’t possibly generalise that ‘do’ focuses on the end of result if the only collocation they’ve encountered is ‘do homework’. Such conclusions can only be drawn after the fact.

    I find your etymological excursion into aspect/respect (nice try!) with some textual colligation thrown in fascinating. Understanding this can indeed show that certain lexical choices are motivated but how helpful is it to the learner at the moment of speaking?

    Or take, for example, ‘she’s not my type’ (and not kind / sort). Does it have anything to do with “type” as in moving metal pieces used in printing? And even if it “type” was motivated in the above chunk, what use is it to the learner, especially for the production purposes?

    A bientot,


    1. hi Leo
      thanks for commenting;
      yes you are right – motivations are not so relevant to production as it is difficult to predict motivations but i agree with Liu that in general such considerations of meaning have been overlooked for the most part in textbooks and online materials
      hope you are coping with the current covid consequences!

    2. Leo Selivan says the fact that his view of collocations is shared by many scholars shows that it is “not as misguided as some commentators here would have you believe!”. He’s wrong, of course: the fact that many scholars share his view does absolutely nothing to show that the view is not misguided (see Thribb (17) “Non sequiturs for Dummies”).

      Attempting to defend his view, Selivan opines, in his typically lucid prose:

      “I find your etymological excursion into aspect/respect (nice try!) with some textual colligation thrown in fascinating. Understanding this can indeed show that certain lexical choices are motivated but how helpful is it to the learner at the moment of speaking?”

      To drive home a point that he hasn’t succeeded in making, Selivan gives the example “‘she’s not my type’ (and not kind / sort)”. He asks: “Does it have anything to do with “type” as in moving metal pieces used in printing?”. Well, no, it doesn’t, but who on earth, other than Selivan, would suppose that it did?

      Selivan ends with what he no doubt considers to be the clincher: “And even if “type” was motivated in the above chunk, what use is it to the learner, especially for the production purposes?”. It’s as if he hadn’t read your post at all, since its main point was precisely to draw attention to the argument for the usefulness of examining with students the motivated aspects of collocations, and helping them to generalise what they learn.

      But wait! It seems Selivan was actually paying attention, because he’s at pains to point out that his book contains two exercises which are informed by cognitive linguistics and the work of Frank Boers. His case rests, to coin a phrase.

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