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Don’t Translate; Collocate!

While correcting a few student essays recently, I encountered several sentences that demonstrate the power of using collocations (搭配) in English. A collocation is defined as “a sequence of words or terms which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance” (

For example, if one would like to use the word “deadline (最後期限)” in spoken or written English, it is important to recognize that “deadline” only occurs with certain verbs, which include “set,” “meet,” “extend,” “move up,” and “miss.” Therefore, collocations such as “set a deadline,” “meet a deadline,” “extend a deadline,” “move up a deadline,” and “miss a deadline” are habitually used in English when expressing thoughts and actions related to “deadline.”

Language learners, especially when using new lexis or expressing complex thoughts in the target language, will frequently put words together in combinations that are not produced by native speakers. Translation is also a strategy used by learners to form sentences in this situation.

While not always resulting in communicative difficulties, the sentences created in this fashion will nonetheless be judged as being “weird” by native speakers.

When using unfamiliar lexis, rather than randomly putting words together or using translation to form sentences, a shortcut to using the vocabulary correctly is to check English-English dictionary example sentences to discover which words go together with the lexis being used. Even better, a collocation dictionary can be consulted. This will help a learner construct the fluent sentences of a native speaker. Here is how it works.

One student essay contained this sentence: “There is indeed a place, East Africa, which is the very place that can broaden one’s eyes and that’s where I long to visit most.” “Broaden” is the key verb. Checking a suitable dictionary is illuminating. “Broaden” collocates with nouns like “perspective,” “point of view,” or “horizons,” but not “eye.” Therefore, the sentence can be edited like this: “There indeed is a place: East Africa. Here a person can broaden his or her perspective. This is the place I long to visit the most.”

In another essay, a student wrote: “In contrast, there’s still someone like to take a challenge in pursuit of their ideal. To me, I tend to hold the positive attitude toward taking a challenge in life.” Checking a proper dictionary yields that “challenge” is usually used in phrases like “face a/the challenge,” “accept a/the challenge,” or “meet a/the challenge.” In addition, “take” is used in phrases like “take a chance,” or “take a risk.” As a result, the idea can be expressed in this way: “In contrast, others like to take chances in pursuit of ideals. I tend to have a positive attitude toward facing challenges in my life.”

While I generally contend that there are no shortcuts to studying language, I will nevertheless venture suggesting one for learning English: When trying out new lexis, check a dictionary—in particular, a dictionary with collocation resources—to determine which word combinations are possible with the lexis in question. Doing so will make the sentences formed look and sound just like the ones that native speakers often produce.  

筆者為任教於台大語文中心外籍教師Brian Greene