Student taking notes while studying from a text book

Learning English through collocations

Need to study Academic English for essays, reports, presentations, but finding it difficult? Move over to the fast lane.

As a second-language student, you may be interested to learn that the Academic Word List (AWL) comprises 570 word families. One way to speed up learning this list is by studying phrases instead of single words. These are fixed-form phrases (groups of words which go well together), including idioms, collocations, lexical bundles, and discourse markers.

According to the EAP Foundation, “Most writers estimate the level of formulaic phrases in English at between 30% and 50%, with one study suggesting that about one third of academic writing is formulaic in nature, and close to two thirds for spoken English.” Therefore, learning these phrases can help you to “kill two birds with one stone”. In other words, learning collocations can greatly enhance both your academic vocabulary for written and spoken English.

What are collocations?

A collocation is two or more words that are often used together. Studies show how collocations are easier to remember, so it is a good idea to write new words with possible groupings in order to use them more efficiently.

For example, the verb do and make are used with different words. Do business, make money. It sounds strange to say ‘make business’ or ‘do money’, in fact, they are incorrect. Learn which words match for more natural English.

Collocations about knowledge

Let’s look at how to use academic collocations to make your language more formal. There are many collocations related to the degree to which something is believed to be true, which are useful in academic writing.

1. Everyone knows that the earth revolves around the sun. (informal)
IQ boost: It is universally accepted that the earth revolves around the sun. (formal)

Other collocations that match well: it is commonly/generally/widely accepted that learning a language is hard work.

2. Most experts agree that global warming is a serious threat to all life.
IQ boost: There is general/broad agreement among experts that global warming is a serious threat to all life.

The above can be changed to an adverb + verb format, experts generally/strongly agree that we need to protect the planet. Another tip for building vocabulary is to learn all the word forms (the noun, adjective, verb and adverb).

Collocations about evidence

There are many academic collocations about evidence and rightly so, because good research is based on reliable evidence.

There is a lot of evidence that using electronic devices at night can affect your sleep. (informal)
IQ boost: There is considerable evidence that using electronic devices at night can affect sleep. (Notice how we have dropped the pronoun your, which makes it more formal). In this case “considerable” refers to the amount of evidence.

Clear evidence or compelling evidence, on the other hand, refers to quality. Different choices of words give a more precise meaning, and make you sound smarter. These would be perfectly reasonable to use to talk about the negative effects of screen time before bed. However, you probably wouldn’t use these phrases to support an argument with little evidence, because they imply that the evidence is strong.

Another useful academic collocation is available evidence (sometimes best available evidence). This suggests that the study still needs further research. For example, “available evidence suggests the COVID-19 vaccines Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna provide protection against a variety of strains.”

Anecdotal evidence, which is based on personal experience and stories, is often disregarded by scientists. Note how the choice of collocation changes the meaning!

Common patterns to collect new words

1. adjective + noun 
Certain words take pride of place. There are 35 collocations with the word “data”, and 52 collocations with the word “high”. You don’t need to learn all of them, of course, only the most widely-used and relevant to your topic.

This is by far the most common type of collocation. For example, high scores, academic achievement, brilliant career.

2. verb + noun 
Less common, but also useful. For example, accept responsibility, raise questions.

3. prepositions and phrasal verbs
Remember the time phrases in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening but at night? It is helpful to learn the word with the preposition, so you use it correctly. For example, I rely on / depend on my best friend. However, I am influenced by my parents. Phrasal verbs, used mainly in informal, spoken English, are similar. We eat out at the weekend, or stay in and watch TV.

The principle is to make a note of collocations, that is words that go well together, which will help you to build a strong vocabulary.

By Leigh-Ann Hunter

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