Monday, 4 May 2009


Students with good chunk-knowledge of English will effortlessly anticipate the missing words in the following phrases, for instance:

> "As a matter of ____, the woman who was burnt at the____ wasn´t a witch at____.
> "When he saw his daughter was unharmed, he breathed a sigh of ___."
> "Got to get___now. I´ve got a train to ____."

Half a century ago J. Firth famously stated that "You shall know a word by the company it keeps". Eventual recognition of the truth of this statement has led to the publication of better and better collocation dictionaries and the creation of hugely useful on-line, corpus-based collocation samples which can be used to learn about "strong collocates". (Strong collocates of a given word are words that very often co-occur with this word in a kind of chunk knwon as a "frequent collocation" - e.g., commit is a stronger collocate of crime). To give another example the following words were thrown up by the free collocation sampler on the Collins Cobuild website when we typed in a certain preposition as query word: years, all, control, take, victory, again, weekend, handed, head, shoulder, win, world, place, and, here, days, dispute, controversy, row, time, presided, concern, came, counter, turned, bent and run. Can you guess what preposition we were interested in? If so, your chunk knowledge for this preposition is at least fairly good.
*Over - e.g., over (the...) years, all over, control over, over again, over (the...)weekend... .

Selected and adapted from Teaching Chunks of English by Seth Lindstromberg and Frank Boers.


  1. What would we do if we didn´t have the Dictionary of Collocations? It´s important to point out that other sources like Google are not that reliable in this case.

  2. @Danuza
    In my experience, among advanced students the commonest errors are not of grammar but of collocation.
    How can we improve our knowledge of chunks and collocations? I find READING the number one source. What else do you suggest?

  3. Dear Danuza and Chris,

    So, you've got THE book, huh, Chris?! Awesome, isn't it? I[ve been fascinated by this subject of vocabulary and collocations for some time now. It really is juicy, isn't it?! We're lucky that Cambridge University Press has published some ELT series that teach students that from the very beginning of the learning process! About your question, I agree that reading does wonders for learning collocations but I also point out watching (TV, movies, the world...) and noticing as good sources. What do you think?!

  4. I agree with Daniela. Watching TV, movies, and reading are great sources for learning collocations. As a non-native Portuguese speaker, this has been my best tool. Is there a book, similar to the one for English, for Portuguese?

  5. @Daniela
    Dear Daniela,
    Too bad we haven't got the book. Have you? Do you know where we can get it?
    I'm an avid reader and a lot of the English I've learned along the years comes from books and magazines.
    However, lately, CNN, HBO, Sony, etc have been invaluable tools. I find my students probably learn far more from TV than from reading. They memorize lots of chunks from TV shows! Great!

    Chris Dupont

  6. @Jacqueline
    Hi Jackie,
    I'll find out if there's a similar book in English. I myself wouldn't "survive" without my dictionary of collocations.

    Bye for now,

  7. Reading magazines and books, watching the news on CNN, movies or series, using the internet as a learning tool... all those things really help. I couldn't agree more, girls! As I'm a teacher now, I'm more involved with this "English speaking world" and I couldn't tell you the amount of things I've been learning these days!

  8. Hello Chris! Just thought you might be interested in publicizing these lessons. Helped me a lot.

    PS: Couldn't guess half of those prepositions. =(

  9. @Fernando Lucas
    Hi Fernando,

    Thanks for the youtube lessons.

    The preposition is OVER. Cool!

  10. @Alba

    Dear Alba,
    You're right! Teaching does give one's English a tremendous boost. Most of my English stems from having been forced to learn things so that I could teach them properly.
    Thank you all my dear students! You've taught me more than you can imagine.