colligation (word groups)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Some words (or types of words) prefer to play together only with certain other words. (Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images)


In English grammar, a colligation is a grouping of words based on the way they function in a syntactic structure--i.e., a syntactic pattern. Verb: colligate.

As linguist Ute Römer has observed, "What collocation is on a lexical level of analysis, colligation is on a syntactic level. The term does not refer to the repeated combination of concrete word forms but to the way in which word classes co-occur or keep habitual company in an utterance" (Progressives, Patterns, Pedagogy).

The word colligation comes from the Latin for "tie together." The term was first used in its linguistic sense by British linguist John Rupert Firth (1890-1960), who defined colligation as "the interrelation of grammatical categories in syntactical structure."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "According to [John Rupert] Firth (1968:181), colligation refers to the relations between words at the grammatical level, i.e. the relations of 'word and sentence classes or of similar categories' instead of 'between words as such.' But nowadays the term colligation has been used to refer not only to significant co-occurrence of a word with grammatical classes or categories (e.g. Hoey 1997, 2000; Stubbs 2001c:112) but also to significant co-occurrence of a word with grammatical words (e.g. Krishnamurthy 2000). The patterning with grammatical words, of course, can be observed and computed even using a raw corpus."
    (Tony McEnery, Richard Xiao, and Yukio Tono, Corpus-Based Language Studies: An Advanced Resource Book. Routledge, 2006)

  • Kinds of Colligation
    "Although based on Firth's concept, the more widespread Sinclairian use of colligation describes the co-occurrence of a class of grammatical items with a specified node. For instance, regarding the node true feelings, [John McH.] Sinclair notes that 'there is a strong colligation with a possessive adjective . . ..' Other kinds of colligation might be a preference for a particular verb tense, negative particles, modal verbs, participles, that- clauses, and so on. The notion that words may prefer (or, indeed, avoid) particular positions in text is picked up by [Michael] Hoey ([Lexical Priming,] 2005) in his more detailed definition of colligation:
    The basic idea of colligation is that just as a lexical item may be primed to co-occur with another lexical item, so also it may be primed to occur in or with a particular grammatical function. Alternatively, it may be primed to avoid appearance in or co-occurrence with a particular grammatical function.
    (Hoey 2005:43)
    Hoey attributes his use of colligation also to refer to sentential position as derivative from [M.A.K.] Halliday . . .; it can, of course, also be seen as a natural extension of considering punctuation as a grammatical class, because punctuation is one of the most obvious indicators of positioning in text."
    (Gill Philip, Colouring Meaning: Collocation and Connotation in Figurative Language. John Benjamins, 2011)

  • Colligation and Verbs of Perception
    "The class of verbs of perception such as hear, notice, see, watch enters into colligation with the sequence of object + either the bare infinitive or the -ing form; e.g.
    We heard the visitors leave/leaving.
    We noticed him walk away/walking away.
    We heard Pavarotti sing/singing.
    We saw it fall/falling.
    The term [colligation] is far less general than the contrasting term collocation."
    (Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994)

  • Collocation and Colligation in Language Instruction
    "[C]ontext is not only central in linguistic analysis and description but in language pedagogy too. I strongly believe that it makes sense to pay attention to collocation and colligation in language instruction and to teach lexical items in their typical syntactic and semantic contexts. This belief clearly echoes one of [John] Sinclair's (1997:34) . . . data-centered precepts: '[i]nspect contexts,' in which he 'advocate[s] a much closer inspection of the verbal environment of a word or phrase than is usual in language teaching.'

    "A corpus-driven study of progressives, especially when it is in part pedagogically motivated, thus has to closely examine the contexts of the respective items under analysis and investigate which terms are normally selected together by the competent speaker of English."
    (Ute Römer, Progressives, Patterns, Pedagogy: A Corpus-driven Approach to English Progressive Forms, Functions, Contexts and Didactics. John Benjamins, 2005)