Common collocation errors

Collocation errors abound in the writings and utterances of English language learners.

Published: 22nd August 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st August 2016 01:19 PM   |  A+A-

A few days ago, I had an encounter with an old student of mine at a shopping mall.  He said, “Sir, you taught us Technical English almost nine years ago. Though I don’t remember everything, there is one topic that is still fresh in my mind.” I asked him, “What topic is that?” He said, “Collocation,” and continued, “The example that you had given made us understand the notion of collocation better.”  “What was the example?” I asked him out of curiosity. He replied, “Sir, you had explained it with this example: The term ‘bull shit’ can’t be changed to ‘bull dung’ and ‘cow dung’ can’t be changed to ‘cow shit’ because ‘bull dung’ and ‘cow shit’ are miscollocations.” He continued, “When one of our classmates asked you why ‘cow dung’ is called ‘cow dung’, you replied to him saying, “This is how the language is spoken and this is how we are expected to speak.” 


Collocation errors abound in the writings and utterances of English language learners. Two major factors that contribute to miscollocations are learners’ lack of exposure to the English language and the interference of their mother tongue. Collocation errors are of different types, with Lexical miscollocation and prepositional miscollocation being the two common types.


Lexical miscollocation

The term ‘lexicon’ refers to the words used in a language. A collocation, by definition, is the co-occurrence of lexical items, the base and the collocate.  In the case of fast food, food is the base and fast is the collocate. Similarly, in heavy rain, rain is the base and heavy is the collocate. The use of the collocate in a collocation is restricted by the base. Here are some common lexical collocation errors:

small fortune NOT little fortune, take a walk NOT make a walk, inflict pain NOT create pain, make an appointment NOT take an appointment, make a mistake NOT do a mistake.

In British English, some verbs that collocate with the base appointment are have/arrange, book, fix and in American English, the verbs that collocate with the base are make, schedule and reschedule.  


Prepositional miscollocation

It is said that mastering prepositions is a challenge for non-native speakers of English. Examples:

deprived of NOT deprived from, denied of NOT denied from, suffer from NOT suffer with, die of NOT die from, absorbed in NOT absorbed with, good at NOT good in, addicted to NOT addicted with

- The employees are deprived of their freedom and denied of their rights.

“One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilising or it will die.”- Evelyn Waugh

Dr Slbert P’ Rayan is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English. He can be contacted at

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