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One of the least appreciated tools for learning English is using a collocation dictionary. A collocation can be defined as "words that go together." In other words, certain words tend to go with other words. If you think about how you use your own language for a moment, you'll quickly recognize that you tend to speak in phrases or groups of words that go together in your mind. We speak in "chunks" of language. For example:
I'm tired of waiting for the bus this afternoon.
An English speaker doesn't think of ten separate words, rather they think in the phrases "I'm tired of" "waiting for the bus" and "this afternoon". That's why sometimes you may say something correctly in English, but it just doesn't sound right. For example:
I'm tired of standing for the bus this afternoon.
To someone who's imaging the situation "standing for the bus", makes sense, but "standing" goes together with "in line". So, while the sentence makes sense, it isn't really correct.
As students improve their English, they tend to learn more phrases and idiomatic language. It's also important to learn collocations. In fact, I'd say it's the single most under-used tool by most students. A thesaurus is very helpful to find synonyms and antonyms, but a collocations dictionary can help you learn the right phrases in context.
I recommend the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English, but there are other collocation resources available such as concordance databases.
Using a Collocation Dictionary Tips
Try these exercises to help you use a collocations dictionary to improve your vocabulary.
1. Choose a Profession
Choose a profession you are interested in. Go to the Occupational Outlook site and read the specifics of the profession. Take note of common terms that are used. Next, look up those terms in a collocations dictionary to extend your vocabulary by learning appropriate collocations.
Aircraft and Avionics
Key words from Occupational Outlook: equipment, maintenance, etc.
From the collocations dictionary: Equipment
Adjectives: the latest, modern, state-of-the-art, high-tech, etc.
Types of Equipment: medical equipment, radar equipment, telecom equipment, etc.
Verb + Equipment: provide equipment, supply equipment, install equipment, etc.
Phrases: the proper equipment, the right equipment
From the collocations dictionary: Maintenance
Adjectives: annual, daily, regular, long-term, preventive, etc.
Types of Maintenance: building maintenance, software maintenance, health maintenance, etc.
Verb + Maintenance: carry out maintenance, perform maintenance, etc.
Maintenance + Noun: maintenance personnel, maintenance costs, maintenance schedule, etc.
2. Choose an Important Term
Choose an important term that you might use on a daily basis at work, school, or home. Look the word up in the collocations dictionary. Next, imagine a related situation and write a paragraph or more using important collocations to describe it. The paragraph will repeat the keyword too often, but this is an exercise. By repeatedly using your key term, you'll create a link in your mind to a wide variety of collocations with your target word.
Key Term: Business
Situation: Negotiating a contract
We're working on a business deal with an investment company who carries on business with profitable businesses throughout the world. We set up the business two years ago, but we've been very successful due to our business strategy. The CEO's business acumen is outstanding, so we're looking forward to conducting business with them. The company's business headquarters are located in Dallas, Texas. They've been in business for more than fifty years, so we expect their business experience to be the best in the world.
3. Use the Collocations You Learn
Make a list of important collocations. Commit to using at least three of the collocations each day in your conversations. Try it, it's more difficult than you might think, but it really helps with memorizing new words.