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Collocations: Word Pairs for Natural English

Collocations: Word Pairs for Natural English

Quick food? Do a test? Wrong and right?

Do any of those sound strange to you? If they do, then you already understand the importance of collocations. We use them every day, even if we don't realize it. And whenever they are not used correctly, native speakers notice. That's why it's important for you to understand them. But don't worry — they are not as difficult as they may seem at first!

What are they?

Collocations are basically groups of two or more words that often go together. The ideas they represent can be expressed with other words, but the importance of collocations is that they simply sound natural together. Take a look at the following examples:

Quick food > Fast food

Do a test > Take a test

For both of the pairs, there is nothing wrong with the first examples. However, they don’t sound quite “right” to a native speaker. The collocations in the second examples are much more natural and would be understood by the listener right away.

Additionally, even if the words are the same, the order they come in can also change how natural they sound. If someone tells you their new job has a good "life-work balance," you will understand, but "work-life balance" would sound better. And what if someone asked you to pass the "pepper and salt"? Most native speakers would agree that "salt and pepper" is the "right" way to say it.

Why are they important?

A woman eating a very delicious and satisfying meal in a restaurant

As we've seen above, one of the biggest benefits of collocations is that they make speech sound more natural. Therefore, they are important to learn for all English speakers — not only people preparing for exams, but for everyone who just wants to speak more fluently in everyday conversations.

Another benefit is that they can help improve your vocabulary. Even if you don't use many higher-level words on their own, remembering the combination of words gives you a chance to use them in your daily speech more often. This also means you don't have to keep using simpler words like "very" and "nice" over and over in your conversations. For example, someone "very rich" can become "filthy rich," and instead of being just "happy" with your meal, you can instead be "completely satisfied" with it. Learning collocations will give you many more ways to express yourself!

Types of collocations

A businessman who is slightly late looking at his watch on the way to a meeting

Collocations may seem confusing at first, especially because there are no general rules for when and how to use them. But the good news is that you are likely already using many of them whenever you speak English. Don't forget the examples at the beginning of this article.

Here are some different collocation types:

Adverb + adjective

Slightly late

I missed my train, so I'll be slightly late for the appointment.

Soaking wet

Without umbrellas, they all got soaking wet in the storm.

Adverb + verb

Briefly mention

Sue briefly mentioned something about free food…

Seriously consider

We'll have to seriously consider it, but we'll give you an answer soon.

Adjective + noun

Bestselling book

The store has a special display for bestselling books.

Bright future

All of the teachers agree that she has a bright future.

Noun + noun

Trial lesson

She was very nervous before her trial lesson.

Pros and cons

What are the pros and cons of leaving a week earlier?

Verb + adverb

Listen carefully

Please listen carefully, everyone.

Study hard

You have to study hard if you want to improve.

Adjective + preposition

Rely on

He always relied on his friends to lend him money.

Amazing at

He's amazing at math. 

Instead of trying to memorize everything, try focusing on only a few types until you can comfortably use them in your conversations. Phrasal verbs are great for this — choose one word, for example "make," and learn all of the words that are frequently used with it (e.g., "make friends," "make up," "make an effort").

Another good tip is to memorize these terms as groups of words instead of individually. For example, it will be much easier to remember "pros and cons" and "rely on" as a set, or words that are often used together. When you are used to hearing and using these collocations, it will be easier to understand the words separately.


Collocations are essential for fluent, natural English. They are used all of the time, so eventually you will start to recognize them in the books you read, the materials you use and the conversations you have each day. Learning to use them well will improve your vocabulary, give you more fluency, and help you sound more like a native speaker.