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How to notice lexical chunks: collocations

When you’re reading a text or listening to something/ someone, do you pay attention to words or phrases? And what about your vocab notebooks, do they contain words or phrases? Not once have I asked my students to highlight some interesting/ useful language in a text, and they mostly chose individual words. But ask a teacher to do the same, and you’ll be given a list of phrases. Why is there such a difference then?

Well, I’d say, it’s a different set of skills. We teachers have to check and correct the language of our learners all the time. But we also have to explain what we correct and why. With grammar it’s more or less clear- there are the rules. But what about the use of words? With words we’re just forced to dive into the topic of lexical chunks and explain it to our learners as well.

So the thing is that people don’t combine individual words to make sentences. Instead, they use chunks, or multi-word units. Here’s a quote from How to Teach Vocabulary (p.114), explaining more:

“A number of researchers have noticed that a lot of early language learning takes the form of chunks (such as this-is-mine, give-me, and leave-me-alone). These are acquired as single, unanalysed units. The capacity to use these chunks in conversational exchanges seems to be an important factor in developing fluence. Using “pre-fabricated” language rather than using grammar rules to fabricate language from scratch saves valuable processing time. These chunks are then stored away and only at a later stage of development are they analysed into their component parts. […]

This “chunking” process serves two purposes in early language production: it enables the child to have chunks of language for immediate use, while at the same time it provides the child with the language patterns to hold in reserve for later analysis… The researchers Pawley and Syder proposed that adult language users have at their command a repertoire of literally hundreds of thousands of these memorised chunks. For example:

  • How are you?
  • Long time no see.
  • So anyway…
  • Don’t mention it.
  • There you are, you see.
  • Speak of the devil.
  • It’s got nothing to do with me.
  • Hang on a minute.
  • If you ask me…

It seems that the mental lexicon is not so much a dictionary as a phrase book.” (the highlight is mine)

So you see, the process of noticing and acquiring chunks starts in early childhood and because of this it may remain unconscious. When we’re introduced to a foreign language, very often there’s a focus on individual words first (unless you start it in early childhood with songs and nursery rhymes). Plus, it takes a while to acquire sufficient passive vocab and to stop stumbling upon unknown words. So it may become a habit to focus on individual words, and then it takes some effort to break this habit and develop a new skill – noticing chunks.

But it’s worth it. Noticing lexical chunks is an extremely useful skill. The higher the level, the more you need this. This is the skill that makes it much easier to learn from texts, videos and conversations without doing tons of exercises.

I imagine this is also how people learn to speak a language by ear (like those Turkish sellers who speak multiple languages and have never seen a language textbook in their life). And this is definitely how you can learn from people with a higher level than yours or from natives – listen attentively, identify one of the key chunks for your conversation, borrow and use it. It is quite a natural process, in mother tongue as well, have you noticed?

So, how to go about noticing chunks? I suggest we start by looking at the types of them. The author of How to Teach Vocabulary highlights 6 main types of chunks:

  • collocations – lay the table, highly educated, fast food, a bar of chocolate;
  • phrasal verbs – wake up, cut down on, look for;
  • idioms, catchphrases and sayings – to spill the beans, mind your own business, no news is good news,
  • sentence frames – would you mind if…?; the thing is…; I’d.. if I were you; what really gets me is…;
  • social formulae – see you later, have a nice day, yours sincerely;
  • discourse markers – on the one hand, to be honest, once upon a time, to cut a long story short.

In this article I’m looking closely at collocations and how to notice them. The next one should be about phrasal verbs, idioms, catchphrases and saying. The third one will be about sentence frames and social formulae and I’ll finish the topic with discourse markers. So, collocations, let’s go.


Collocations are two or more words that go together and there’s no clear explanation or logic why. It just happened in the language. Getting collocations wrong may not influence the meaning (e.g. “do a mistake”), but it will sound unnatural, strange or wrong. So we’d better get it right.

To learn to notice them and to use them well, you can start from here: how different parts of speech are combined. There are 7 types of these combinations:

  • verb + noun
  • verb + adverb
  • verb + a prepositional phrase
  • noun + verb
  • noun + noun
  • adjective + noun
  • adverb + adjective

Let’s take the word “talk”, both as a verb and as a noun (in all its meanings – a conversation, talking, a discussion and a lecture) and look at its collocations to give you more examples.

Verb + noun: for “to talk” we have only idioms here because it’s more commonly used with a prepositional phrase, for “a talk” there are several verbs:

  • Even at a party they have to talk shop!
  • It’s good to hear someone finally talking sense on this issue?
  • Is it just me or was she talking nonsense in the meeting?
  • I asked him to have a talk with his mother about his plan.
  • He gave a talk about/on his visit to Malaysia.
  • The two governments held secret talks on the nuclear threat.

Verb + adverb:

  • She talked quite freely about her work.
  • He had talked vaguely of going to work abroad.

Verb + a prepositional phrase:

  • You’re not allowed to talk during the exam.
  • Could I talk to you about a personal matter?
  • She talks to her mother on the phone every week.
  • I’ve talked with him on the telephone.

Noun + verb:

  • Talk turned to money and tempers began to fray.
  • Talks were scheduled for Rome the following month.
  • The peace talks will take place in Cairo.
  • Our talk soon veered onto the subject of football.

Noun + noun:

  • a talk show,
  • contract/merger/takeover talks,
  • A further round of talks is expected in March.

Adjective + noun:

  • I need to have a heart-to-heart talk with her.
  • There was excited talk of emigrating to America.
  • There is ridiculous talk of her breaking the world record soon.

Adverb + adjective: for this let’s take the adjective “talkative”

  • You’re unusually talkative! What’s going on?
  • He is particularly talkative today – he’s got a pay rise.

For starters, I’d suggest you focus on the verb + noun and verb + a prepositional phrase types. After all, the verb is fundamental and without it we can’t make full sentences. Once you’ve noticed these two types, all you need to do is to add a subject, and your sentences are ready. It’s easier to practise such collocations as well.

For higher levels I’d highlight the importance of noticing the adverb + adjective, noun+noun (noun phrases) and verb + adverb types. They are part of the B2-C1 curriculum.

As for adjective + noun, here you need to be careful: some phrases like this may be collocations, some descriptive language that’s used a lot in fiction. In general, common collocations sound more like something clear, familiar and understandable, while descriptive language will look beautiful, interesting and original. At least they are my impressions.

The sources to check collocations are

To go a little bit further, you can pay attention to the same 7 types of phrases (verb + noun, verb + adverb, verb + a prepositional phrase, noun + verb, noun + noun, adjective + noun) but the ones where the language is used metaphorically. For example, in the abstract below I highlighted typical collocations in bold, but there are many more interesting expressions (they are given below the abstract). I believe noticing such figurative language is the first step to using it later and taking your language to C2 and above =)

[From We need to kick our success addiction]

“Perhaps the most poignant conversation I had when writing this book was with a woman about my age. She is tremendously successful on Wall Street—she’s made a fortune and is highly respected.

Lately, however, she has been starting to miss a step here and there. Her decisions as a manager aren’t as crisp as they once were, her instincts less reliable. Where once she commanded the room, now she sees that younger colleagues doubt her. In a panic about the prospect of decline, she read an article I wrote and reached out to me.

I asked her a lot of questions about her life. She wasn’t very happy and hadn’t been happy for many years—perhaps ever. Her marriage was unsatisfactory, she drank a little too much, and her relationship with her college-age kids was all right . . . but distant. She had few real friends. She worked incredibly long hours and felt physically exhausted a lot of the time. Her work was everything to her—she “lived to work”—and now she was terrified that even that was starting to slip.

She openly admitted these things, so you’d think that the solution to her unhappiness would be obvious. And indeed, I asked her why she didn’t remediate the sources of her unhappiness—to take the time to resuscitate her marriage and spend more time with her kids; get some help with her drinking; sleep more; get in better shape. I knew that her grueling work effort had made her successful in the first place, but when you figure out something has secondary consequences that are making you miserable, you find a way to fix it, right? You might love bread, but if you become gluten intolerant, you stop eating it because it makes you sick.

She thought about my question for a couple of minutes. Finally, she looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, “Maybe I would prefer to be special rather than happy.”

Metaphorical phrases:

Verb + noun: to miss a step, command the room, remediate the sources of her unhappiness, resuscitate her marriage

Adjective + noun: her decisions aren’t as crisp, instincts less reliable, grueling work effort, secondary consequences

Now it’s up to you. Take a text (it’s easier to start with a written text than with audio). Look at it more closely. What collocations/ expressions will you find there?

And thank you for finishing this long text =)

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

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