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 demonstrated that it is a common assumption in published teaching materials. Of the books, studies and websites on teaching collocations he observed 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:

weren’t there. Let me handle it. I said, ” Yes, ma’am. ” ROSEN: The rebuke of Mr. Clinton by his wife came after the former president revived the dormant issue of Mrs. Clinton’s own misstatements about her 1996 trip to Bosnia. You’ll recall Mrs. Clinton, in recent months, spoke of sniper fire jeopardizing her landing. But contemporaneous video and eyewitness account revealed there was no such threat, and the senator effectively if belatedly defused the story with an omission of error in late March. SEN-HILLARY-CLINTO: But I did a mistake in talking about it, you know, the last time and recently. ROSEN: But in Jasper, Indiana, Thursday, Mr. Clinton blamed the controversy on the biased news media. B-CLINTON: She took a terrible beating in the press for a few days because she was exhausted at 11:00 at night when she started talking about Bosnia. ROSEN: In fact, Mrs. Clinton related the false Bosnia story numerous times including in a prepared speech delivered freshly at mid morning. B-CLINTON: And then the president (COCA SPOK: FOX SPECIAL REPORT WITH BRIT HUME 6:00 PM EST, 2008, emphasis added)

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.