Sunday, January 20, 2013

Collocation: How Words Go Together

In linguistics, collocation refers to words that appear together more frequently than expected. It's how words go together, though not like "rama lama lama" as Grease would have us believe. Though rama and lama probably do exhibit collocation to a certain extent.

For native speakers of a language, the collocations are almost second nature. Most English speakers know that you make a decision rather than do a decision. The fact that "make" occurs more frequently with the word "decision" is a syntactic relation. Many speakers of languages that do not have a distinction between the words "do" and "make", such as French and Spanish, will often find themselves making this mistake, causing the English speakers with them to wince slightly at the inelegance of the phrasing.

It can also be used to make funky lines...
Collocation can be measured by brainy mathematicians using all sorts of crazy functions that we don't even want to fathom. Certain methods include using the log-likelihood, (it's not something you consider on your first visit to the toilet after a curry), as well as other statistical analysis methods.

You know when you're witnessing collocation, especially within the speech of a foreign speaker. It's the feeling every native speaker will get when they can't explain why a sentence is wrong but know that it just sounds wrong.

Even with all the mathematics behind finding collocation, all it takes is a sentence that feels awkward.