Why the pineapple?

This post can be considered a follow on from the post Collocations need not be arbitrary.

One response that proponents of the lexical approach in language teaching could make to the issue of looking at meanings and collocations is simply to define collocation as one level of meaning. John Firth, as cited by Joseph (2003), put it thus:

“The statement of meaning by collocation and various collocabilities does not involve the definition of word meaning by means of further sentences in shifted terms. Meaning by collocation is an abstraction at the syntagmatic level and is not directly concerned with the conceptual or idea approach to the meaning of words. One of the meanings of night is its collocability with dark, and of dark, of course, collocation with night.”

Joseph, 2003: 130

Defining collocations as one level of meaning is reasonable but it does not provide an explanation that may be pedagogically useful. Cognitive linguistics claims to provide such a use.

Let’s take the question of the difference between choosing highest mountain and tallest mountain that arose in a class recently. One explanation is based on the distribution of what collocates with tall – that is living things (tall man, tall tree) and man made objects (tall building, tall pole). Tall tends not to collocate with natural objects such as mountains.

That is where a Firthian (and by consequence a lexical) approach stops. A cognitive analysis by Dirven and Taylor (1988) showed that general cognition (in the form of concepts) can explain further.

Highest mountain is preferred as the concept HIGH includes both a meaning of vertical position (positional meaning) as well as vertical length (extensional meaning) whereas the concept TALL only includes the meaning of vertical length. So although you can find tallest mountain people often think of being at the top of a mountain hence the vertical position is emphasised rather than vertical length (see figure below):

Figure 1. after Dirven & Taylor, 1988: 386

Thanks for reading. And do have a read of a less favourable view of cognitive linguistics at a recent Geoff Jordan blog Anybody seen a pineapple?


Marc Jones writes about cueing as a way to learn chunks Pinneapples?


Dirven, R., & Taylor, J. R. (1988). The conceptualisation of vertical space in English: The case of tall. In Topics in cognitive linguistics, B. Rudzka-Ostyn (ed), 379. John Benjamins.

Joseph, J. (2003). Rethinking linguistic creativity. In Rethinking Linguistics, H. Davis & T.J. Taylor (eds), 121–150. London: Routledge.

10 thoughts on “Why the pineapple?

  1. I’ve enjoyed both these posts (i.e. this one and ‘Collocations need not be arbitrary’) – but I should say that I’ve enjoyed them most for (a) discovering that I disagree with the points made as I understand them and (b) figuring out why I disagree with them.

    In one way, I think you are quite right to pick up on the fact that: “there is no particular reason why words “prefer the company of certain other words”, they just do” (from the previous post), as it does seem like a very unsatisfactory response.

    However, I would take issue with the alternative you propose in that previous post as given in your make/do example (contra Selivan):

    “… learners also miss the chance to generalise what they learn (Wray, 2000) …”

    Firstly, a generalisation only has value to the extent that it identifies a pattern from a range of specific instances in the past that can then be reliably applied to future uses.

    But collocations resist this kind of generalisation not because it’s impossible (John Sinclair, Gill Francis, Susan Hunston among others have shown that it is possible), but because it’s only true at a very fine-grained level of detail – which for most learners up to and around B2 – likely above that too – is simply information overload.

    In other words, there’s an efficiency/efficacy trade off going on – Is it quicker and easier for a student to learn collocations by rote (while acknowledging that they are highly probable rather than absolutely certain)? Or is it really worth their time to learn the ‘core’ meanings?

    I would argue that in many cases it is actually largely going to be far more efficient to learn words that go together by rote than learning general formula which in any case:
    a) will be difficult to both processs and interpret
    b) will only deliver a success rate for most students that is no better than simply learning by rote.

    That brings me to my second point which is with your description of “core meanings”. It depends what you mean by “core” here, but it is something that I would reject.

    It is certainly something that I think J. R. Firth might have rejected, since his point about the collocability of ‘dark’ with ‘night’ (and vice versa) had a great deal to do with his concept of ‘Context of Situation’, which can more or less be understood in terms of genre as we would usually speak about it now.

    I doubt Firth was focussing on form to the exclusion of meaning, but rather that he was seeing meaning as a function of context where context is partly created by the use of particular forms (Firth was a supervisor on Michael Halliday’s PhD and the two later worked together – Halliday acknowledges his debt to Firth. Firth also had an influence Sinclair amongst others).

    But that aside, my issue with your use of a core meaning is that requires interpretation at one-step remove since it’s already being interpreted by someone coming to grips with an L2.

    Here are some issues I have with this:

    “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.”

    1) By referring to “and/or more effortful than”, it suggests that there is an underlying core to the meanings of both words – e.g. as if make and do are the ‘children’ of a parent verb that is yet to exist

    2) The ‘core’ definition of ‘do’ doesn’t make any mention that only ‘do’ functions as an auxiliary verb and only ‘make’ can function as a causative (e.g. Did you make her do her homework or did she do it all by herself?)

    3) Perhaps most important of all though is why can a student not read this and decide that “I made a crossword last night” is not ambiguous between the ideas of creating a crossword from scratch on the one hand and filling in a crossword in the newspaper on the other?

    Because after all, why can’t the action of filling in a crossword in the newspaper be interpreted quite reasonably as “a process that is purposeful and/or .. effortful ” and therefore result in a student saying “Teacher! I’ve made the crossword already!” to refer to the action of having finished completing one in class?

    Likewise, following the ‘core’ definition of ‘do’ as the “completion/the finishing of something, which focuses on the end result of an activity” why could a student not quite rationally conclude that the following are typical usage?

    *I did the bed.
    *I did a phone call.
    *I did dinner. (especialy confusing for learners since both ‘make dinner’ and ‘do the cooking’, while not exactly the same, are both close enough to ‘prepare a meal’ to be vexing as to why one would use make and the other do).

    So, in short (no irony intended!), while you raise an interesting point here and in the previous post, on balance and from a learner’s point of view, it does seem to be overall less troublesome to learn by rote than it does to learn the supposed ‘core’ meanings of make and do, especially as those core meanings only come to be useful once a student has already more or less mastered which words collocate with make and which with do.

    1. hi nmwhiteport
      thanks for reading and for your thoughts.
      yes re: rote learning certainly is useful, though something more suitable for outside of a classroom?
      in a classroom having an option to answer a why question from a student (in addition to saying just learn it) is handy : )
      yes there are various issues with the assumptions cognitive linguistics; one thing to note is that “core” applies to concepts rather than words so the concept MAKE has a core or prototype meaning; certainly in the network model of cog ling there could well be a superordinate category linking MAKE & DO

      1. “re: rote learning certainly is useful, though something more suitable for outside of a classroom?”

        Possibly – it depends on a range of factors, such as age, level, time available outside class, etc.

        But to be clear, by “rote learning” I mean just any form of memorisation through repetition/repeated encounters with the same collocations and in that I would include such things as pelmanism or other ‘game’ like matching activities – and not e.g. choral drilling or students being asked to silently memorise something.

        Those can be a normal part of a lesson and not unenjoyable at times as you know.

        “in a classroom having an option to answer a why question from a student (in addition to saying just learn it) is handy : )”

        Well, there is some merit to that for sure!

        But then it still has to be true – obviously – and an effective generalisation.

        Otherwise that same student’s likely going to come back to you in a week’s time and say something like “So, I made that vocabulary crossword like you asked” and when you attempt to correct them they might say “But you said use make when it is a process that has a purpose and when it is effortful, too!”.

        And that can lead a teacher into the kind of ad hoc rationalisation of a rule where the problem is really the formulation of the rule itself.

        “one thing to note is that “core” applies to concepts rather than words so the concept MAKE has a core or prototype meaning;”

        Yes, but going back to my original reason for replying (i.e. I’m very interested in this aspect of linguistics as it applies to language teaching) – I find it hugely problematic.

        I reject almost completely the idea of a core meaning in the way it’s defined there because (a) I don’t think it’s very good linguistics, and (b) I think it has very little real value in terms of classroom instruction – except, perhaps, as an interesting mnemonic or memory aid for revising known vocabulary items.

        Clearly, the people who work on cognitive linguistics are very able and intelligent people – but acknowledging that doesn’t mean that I can’t say that the underlying assumptions they have about language aren’t mistaken – and in this case I feel that there is a good chance that they are.

        It’s highly suspicious that the ‘core concepts’ MAKE and DO bear more than a passing resemblance to the dictionary defintions for the same words (make = “to create or prepare something by combining materials or putting parts together” – OALD sense 1; do = “to work at or perform an activity or a task” – OALD sense 4).

        In terms of use (and answering tricky questions from students), I’d probably go with the OALD definitions as both clearer and more practical than relating it to a core concept.

        I didn’t mention this before, but the same goes for high/tall mountains – rather than trying to get to grips with concepts such as extension / position, the OALD seems to come to the rescue:

        high – sense 1 measuring a long distance from the bottom to the top; sense 2 used to talk about the distance that something measures from the bottom to the top

        tall – sense 1 (of a person, building, tree, etc.) having a greater than average height

        That dispenses with artificial distinctions and it also shows that tall does collocate with mountain even if less often frequently than high does.

        But that also makes general sense if you think about the kind of communication that will be taking place in the use of tall mountain / high mountain where the former – my guess is – probably tends to collocate with more emotional, poetic or literary uses (since a “tall mountain” is a kind of tautology in the way “wet water” is) whereas the latter, high + mountain, is likely to occur in more factual and descriptive communicative uses.

        For my money, meaning is generally a function of context and form is an index of that context.

        In other words, if a student knows that words generally align with purposes and contexts then that explains collocation (I think) better than recourse to a cognitive ‘mapping’ of the world that transcends L1/L2 differences.

        It also teaches a very valuable principle about language in general which is that is highly context-sensitive.

      2. yes i think we have two issues here practical teaching and linguistic theory;
        re practical teaching – yes certainly dictionaries are an option but for me personally (in the case of high/tall) i don’t see very clearly how the dictionary definitions are better than the image say in post; and here we can extend this to our students i.e. having options for different preferences and understandings of learners

        re theoretical issue yes core/prototypes in cog ling are debateable

        thanks for your further thoughts!

      3. “i don’t see very clearly how the dictionary definitions are better than the image say in post”

        I was about to ask “What image?”, but realise there’s a blank space in the post (at least when I see it in my browser, Firefox, there is), under which it says “(after Dirven & Taylor, 1988: 386)” – so I’m afraid I can’t see that.

        But in general, yes, images are handy if clear.

        But in any case, my main point is that a basically traditional lexicographer’s approach to definition writing seems to have produced a definition that is remarkably close to what is supposedly the CORE CONCEPT meaning – that it does so suggests to me that there may have been some kind of ‘chicken and egg’ thing going on in the design of the research i.e. where you might reasonably expect a CORE CONCEPT of MAKE/DO to differ in some way from the standard dictionary definition whereas it actually seems to follow it quite closely (but in a more technical register).

        I also feel the definition as given in the OALD* is more elegant in suggesting that ‘tall’ already implies a comparison with other things, i.e. since all mountains are ‘tall’, to speak of ‘a tall mountain’ suggests ‘relative to other mountains’; whereas the definition for ‘high’ suggests its more factual/descriptive.

        I’m not sure an image could capture that distinction (but haven’t seen it).

        Thank you for getting back to me, too!

      4. can you see the image now? thanks for alerting me to this!
        in the context of the class where the issue was raised it was in reference to a question – “What is the highest mountain in the UK?”; a student asked why it could not be “tallest mountain”. so the relative aspect of “tall” that you mention from the dictionary definition doesn’t explain (make clear) why “tallest” is not typically used with mountain since high can also be used in a relative fashion.

      5. sorry wanted to add regarding your example of a student producing ‘make a crossword’; the distinction between comprehension & production has come up before (see comments in collocation need not be arbitrary) – i.e. analysis of why certain word was used is retrospective and so more suitable for comprehension

      6. “the distinction between comprehension & production has come up before (see comments in collocation need not be arbitrary)”

        Doh! I can’t believe it!

        Because I came across this post first, I only quickly scanned the previous one to get up to speed and so missed completely the detailed comments below it(!)

        I love Geoff Jordan ; – ) – this one is priceless:

        “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”). ”

        (Although I believe E. J. Thribb is 17 3/4).

        But which comment were you referring to on “the distinction between comprehension & production”?

        I can’t actually see which comment you mean.

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