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I want to concentrate in this article on the problems non-native speakers may have with English vocabulary use - in particular with the appropriate combinations of words. This is an aspect of language called collocation. An example of collocation that many learners of English may be familiar with is the different adjectives that are used to describe a good-looking man and a good-looking woman. We talk of a beautiful woman and of a handsome man, but rarely of a beautiful man or a handsome woman.

(It is quite possible, in fact, to describe a woman as handsome. However, this implies that she is not beautiful at all in the traditional sense of female beauty, but rather that she is mature in age, has large features and a certain strength of character. Similarly, a man could be described as beautiful, but this would usually imply that he had feminine features. Calling a man pretty is most often done perjoratively to suggest effeminacy. *)

In another familiar example of collocation, we talk of high mountains and tall trees, but not usually of tall mountains and high trees. Similarly a man can be tall but never high (except in the sense of being intoxicated!), whereas a ceiling can only be high, not tall. A window can be both tall or high, but a tall window is not the same as a high window. We get old and tired, but we go bald or grey. We get sick but we fall ill. A big house, a large house and a great house have the same meaning, but a great man is not the same as a big man or a large man. You can make a big mistake or a great mistake, but you cannot make a large mistake. You can be a little sad but not a little happy. We say very pleased and very tiny, but we do not say very delighted or very huge. And so on - there are endless examples of this kind of difficulty!

The problem for the learner of English is that there are no collocation rules that can be learned. The native English speaker intuitively makes the correct collocation, based on a lifetime’s experience of hearing and reading the words in set combinations. The non-native speaker has a more limited experience and may frequently collocate words in a way that sounds odd to the native speaker.

Here are some questions to test your knowledge of collocations:

a messa mistakethe houseworkthe beds
a noisea wisha testa promise
a jobsomeone a favouryour besta speech
the shoppingdamagea telephone callyour hair (i.e. comb it or make it tidy

Finally some odds and ends. See if you know the correct collocations in answer to the following questions?

More on collocation : Interactive quiz


A question from a site visitor (how to assess collocate strength)

[* Since I wrote the above text, in 1990, matters have changed, and it is much more common to hear men described as beautiful, without any implication of feminity.]

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)