What are collocations? (and how do I use them?)

A collocation is when two or more words often go together. For example, in English we usually say use the verb ‘strike’ before the noun ‘deal’. So the collocation is ‘strike a deal’ which means to succeed in securing a deal with a company. Although you could say we ‘hit a deal’ it sounds unnatural, when to ‘strike a deal’ is a natural example.  Some common verbs used in collocations are: have, go, make, do, take, break, catch, save, keep, pay, among many others.

Don’t forget to download your free Collocations Cheat Sheet at the bottom of the blog!

What’s the difference between a collocation and a phrasal verb?

As stated in the first paragraph, a collocation is a group of words that naturally go together. Some examples include: ‘make a mistake’, ‘take a break’, ‘break a record’, etc.

A phrasal verb is very close to a collocation but the main difference is the way it is formed. A phrasal verb is made up of a verb + preposition. For more information about phrasal verbs, check out our blog.

It is important to remember that the meaning of a phrasal verb is different to the original verb. For example: ‘Look after’ means to care for someone whilst ‘look’ means to use your eyes to see something.

A note on ‘have’ and ‘make’

We typically use the verb ‘have’ when we’re talking about possession/ownership. For example: I have a dog. (The dog belongs to me. / I own the dog.)

When we use collocations, ‘have’ is typically used when we talk about fixed events, such as a meeting. For example: Let’s have a meeting. / We’re having a meeting. You can find more collocations about meetings over at the meetings course.

We typically use the verb ‘make’ when we talk about creating something. For example: I’m going to make you a promise. (I’m going to create a promise for you.)

When we use collocations with ‘make’ we’re usually talking about planned activities. For example: I made an appointment with the doctor.

Natural v Unnatural

Let’s start by looking at some more examples of natural collocations versus unnatural ones.

Have a rest (natural).

Do a rest (unnatural).

Make a noise (natural).

Make a haircut (unnatural).

Commit a crime (natural).

Commit a goal (unnatural).

Fast food (natural).

Quick food (unnatural).

Examples

Below are a few examples of collocations. A comprehensive list would be the length of an entire book so I’ve just gathered a few ideas here.

take, break, catch, save, keep, pay, catch

Have Make
Have children Make a mess
Have surgery Make a noise
Have a good time Make a fuss
Have difficulty Make a fool of yourself
Have a feeling / Have a funny feeling Make a cup of tea / make some food
Have breakfast / lunch / dinner Make friends
Have no fear Make a profit
Have a bite Make a phone call
Have a busy day Make a comment
Go Do
Go on through Do the ironing
Go on an adventure Do the dishes
Go out of business Do some research /work
Go to the beach / cinema Do my hair
Go figure Do (someone) a favour
Go bankrupt Do nothing
Go through me Do over
Go on holiday Do without
Go to university Do my best
Break Take
Break a habit Take a bow
Break a promise Take a look
Break the law / rules Take a message
Break even Take a photograph
Break loose Take a nap
Break new ground Take a risk
Break a window Take an opportunity
Break (someone’s) heart Take (good) care of
Break free Take part

Exercise

Match the words to form natural collocations.

Make a photograph
Have the dishes
Do part
Take a crime
Fast a habit
Commit over
Do bankrupt
Take a fuss
Break food
Go a rest

Answers

Make a fuss
Have a rest
Do over
Take a photograph
Fast food
Commit a crime
Do the dishes
Take part
Break a habit
Go bankrupt

Bonus Exercise

Create ten sentences using a collocation in each. You can then book a lesson with one of our teachers to discuss your sentences.

Grab your free downloadable collocations cheat sheet right here!

This content was written and recorded by Intrepid English Teacher Thomas.

You can find out more about Thomas on his Intrepid English Teacher Profile Page.

Book a free trial lesson today to discuss this topic in more detail, and talk about your English learning goals with an experienced and friendly native English teacher.

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