Improve your English vocabulary with collocations

Collocations are pairs of words or short phrases that often appear together, such as a verb and a noun, an adjective and a noun, or a verb and a preposition. Let’s have a look at the following two adjective + noun collocations:

strong coffee, a powerful computer

Strong and powerful have very similar meanings and might be synonyms in many contexts (for example, both would work with the word army). But can we switch the two adjectives around, as in powerful coffee and a strong computer? They probably sound funny to you and they would definitely sound funny to a native English speaker!

Because coffee made with lots of coffee but with not much water is often described as strong, English speakers are used to hearing and using these words together. If you used a different adjective such as powerful, they may think you wish to express a different meaning, maybe even one that is idiomatic (redensartlich). That’s why it’s important to note which words are used together when reading or listening to English.

Another type of collocation that is very useful for improving fluency is a verb with a preposition. Let’s say you have learned the verb involve, which can be used to talk about your current projects at work. When used in a sentence, many English verbs must take specific prepositions after them. The complete phrase is to be involved in something where something is either a noun (a thing or an event) or an activity (the gerund form of the verb with -ing):

  • I’m involved in a project which takes up all of my time.
  • I’m involved in planning an upcoming event.

Verbs can often be used with other prepositions which changes the meaning. Now let’s pair involve with the preposition with.

  • I’m involved with that NGO. (I help or support a company or organization.)
  • Thomas is involved with Sarah. (They have a romantic relationship.)

Our tip: Instead of learning new words one by one, improve your English and expand your vocabulary by learning as many collocations as possible to sound more natural and avoid mistakes.

Mindy Ehrhart Krull
About the author

Originally from the US, Mindy Ehrhart Krull holds a master's degree in journalism and has been teaching English and working as an author, editor and proofreader in Germany since 2008.

At DELS, she leads a team of several English trainers and language professionals.

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