This post is about collocations, for which the Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “a word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning.” Collocations can involve verbs and nouns, as in ‘do your homework’; or adjectives and nouns, as in ‘heated argument’, or verbs and adverbs, as in ‘rain heavily’.
If, like me, you’ve spent part of your working life teaching the English language to non-native speakers of it, you’ll appreciate the difficulty students often have getting their heads around collocations in English. I seem to have spent hours explaining to people that you don’t ‘write your homework’ but ‘do’ it; that calling an angry exchange a ‘hot argument’ just doesn’t sound right; and that you can’t describe extreme precipitation as ‘raining painfully’. Note that with all these mistakes, I fully understood the meaning the speaker was trying to convey. (The last mistake cropped up when I was working in a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, yes, it seemed to rain painfully every day.)
The problem is, we simply don’t put those particular words together to express those particular things. It may well be that the reasons for certain collocations being right and other collocations being wrong are psychological, on the part of the listener, as much as they are linguistic, on the part of the language itself. Also, it didn’t surprise me when I heard a language researcher claim one time that collocations are the biggest causes of mistakes in speaking and writing by high-level learners of English.
In literature, of course, the way in which a writer uses collocations can contribute greatly to his or her style. Shunting together words that don’t normally collocate can add an inventive flourish to the prose. However, if the results can be embarrassing if a writer overdoes it and the attempted collocation falls flat. I still haven’t forgotten a sentence in an Anthony Burgess novel where a character ‘tramples’ a page with his ‘signature’ – ouch! And I’ve read a review of Martin Amis’ 2012 novel Lionel Asbo – State of England, in which Amis is taken to task for the clumsiness of his writing – much of which is down to him trying to collocate words that have no business being collocated: for example, ‘Dawn sizzled…’, ‘unfallen eyes’ and ‘a heavy silence began to fuse and climb…’
Anyway, this is a prelude to saying that I recently noticed a mural painted on a wall outside a school on Colombo’s Duplication Road that makes heavy use of English collocations. It pairs off various English verbs and adverbs so that the school-pupils receive a list of instructions about how to behave properly. Some of the collocated verbs and adverbs work for me and some don’t. I wonder if this is because the creator of the mural had mistaken ideas about what words collocate appropriately in English or if he or she simply stuck them together without knowing at all. Or is it because these collocations have become acceptable in Sri Lankan English while it’s evolved apart from ‘standard’ English (whatever that is) over the years? Or are they the result of literal translations from the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil?
By the way, I’m not trying to take a pop at Sri Lankan English here for being incorrect. The dialect of English where I come from originally, Northern Ireland, has often been dismissed as being ungrammatical or uneducated or just plain incomprehensible, but I would absolutely defend people’s right to speak English that way. And it contains some collocations of its own that would probably earn an arrest-warrant from the Standard-English Grammar Police: “It’s fierce hot,” “She’s a big age,” “The weather’s powerful today,” and so on.
So let’s see. Which of the mural’s collocations work? ‘Dress smartly’? Obviously. ‘Save regularly’? Yes. ‘Eat sensibly’? I suppose so. ‘Act fearlessly’? Well, that’s a bit dramatic and it would be exhausting to act fearlessly all the time, but I guess it’s acceptable. ‘Sleep sufficiently’? Hmmm… ‘Plan orderly’? No, sorry.
Some of these collocations sound downright odd, yet I can think of certain people to whom they would make perfect sense. ‘Spend intelligently’ – did you hear that, Mr. Johnny Depp, the man who last year was reputed to be blowing two million dollars a month on wine, staff, security, a private jet and 14 residences? ‘Think truthfully’, meanwhile, would be excellent advice for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other members of Britain’s Brexiting Conservative government, who are currently possessed by self-delusion on an epic scale about Britain’s prospects after it leaves the European Union.
And ‘walk humbly’? Well, I’m not quite sure how you would physically do that. But I would advise this man to at least give it a try.
© Disney Enterprises Inc
© Stefan Rousseau / From the Times
From CBN News