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May 24, 2015
Andrew Walkley

5 Different collocations or units of meaning = different networks of words

We saw in the second post in this series that coming up with clear-cut definitions of single words is difficult because individual words impact on each other and change their ‘meanings’ slightly. For example, Hanks argues that the typical usage of raging fire is different to blazing fire in that it can be seen to be a both different kind of fire (an accidental one as opposed to one that’s deliberate) and a different kind of ‘big’ (big and out of control – as opposed to big and warming). There is a further knock-on effect of collocation though. That is that each collocation will, in turn, have different collocations and networks of words connected to it.

So if we take raging fire, an associated network might be turn into (a raging fire) / call the fire brigade / out of control / rescue / die (= people, things) / fight to control and put out. With blazing fire, however, you might expect to use or hear words such as build / sit round / die (= the fire) / camping / the night sky / keep us warm, and so on.

This idea can apply to ‘simpler’ collocations where we might consider the individual words to be more obviously ‘separate’. Take new car / old car. Obviously, both collocations will share some collocates, such as ‘drive’, but in the main, the collocates will be different – think how you’d expect these phrases to be completed: I got rid of my …. ; I can’t afford a(n) …, I’m picking up my …; my …. died. Beyond these collocations of the collocations, we are also going to have other word associations that we might expect to come up in a ‘text’ about old cars. Again, these will mostly be different to those associated with a new car. For example, rust / fail its MOT (British English) / [part] fell off / the [part] is broken / [number] miles on the clock – and so on.

Also, of course, we might add that these networks will be totally different from the networks around things like new / old house; new / old wine; new / old friends.

This is speculation, but perhaps this is another benefit of language organising itself around collocation or what Wray call ‘units of meaning’. If you work round units of meaning, you reduce the number of likely collocates and associations when compared to trawling through all the collocates of, say, new and all the collocates of car. This narrower focus may well enable our students to speed up recall and construct text more easily in real time.

Applications of this principle

In a way, the above shows the limitations of teaching words in collocation – and the importance of getting students to engage with vocabulary beyond this level. You can do this through:

– asking questions about words and collocations connected to usage – see the Exploiting exercises section.

– getting students to ‘text’ words by reading lots and putting words into stories or conversation (some may also call this ‘free practice’ or doing tasks)

– teaching and learning groups of words round a collocate or connected to a collocate by a text – rather than learning words in hyponomous sets (car, motorbike, train, etc.).


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