How familiar word groupings help us understand meaning

two peas in a pod
The idiomatic expression "two peas in a pod" is an example of a collocation. It means "very similar, especially in appearance.". Burazin/Getty Images

A collocation (pronunciation: KOL-oh-KAY-shun) is a familiar grouping of words, especially words that habitually appear together and thereby convey meaning by association. The term collocation (from the Latin for "place together") was first used in its linguistic sense by British linguist John Rupert Firth (1890-1960), who famously observed, "You shall know a word by the company it keeps." Collocational range refers to the set of items that typically accompany a word. The size of a collocational range is partially determined by a word's level of specificity and number of meanings.

Examples and Observations

"Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith."
—Robert Heinlein, "Stranger in a Strange Land"
"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo."
—James Joyce, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"
"The mule has more horse sense than a horse. He knows when to stop eating—and he knows when to stop working."
—Harry S. Truman.
"I'm an incredible man, possessing an iron will and nerves of steel—two traits that have helped me become the genius I am today as well as the lady killer I was in days gone by."
—William Morgan Sheppard as Dr. Ira Graves, "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

"The "Wheel of Fortune" Lexicon

"Collocations and clichés are strings of words that are remembered as wholes and often used together, such as gone with the wind or like two peas in a pod. People know tens of thousands of these expressions; the linguist Ray Jackendoff refers to them as 'the Wheel of Fortune lexicon,' after the game show in which contestants guess a familiar expression from a few fragments."
—From "Words and Rules" by Steven Pinker

Predictability of Collocations

"Every lexeme has collocations, but some are much more predictable than others. Blond collocates strongly with hair, flock with sheep, neigh with horse. Some collocations are totally predictable, such as spick with span, or addled with brains . . .. Others are much less so: letter collocates with a wide range of lexemes, such as alphabet and spelling, and (in another sense) box, post, and write. . . .
"Collocations should not be confused with 'association of ideas.' The way lexemes work together may have nothing to do with 'ideas.' We say in English green with jealousy (not blue or red), though there is nothing literally 'green' about 'jealousy.'"
—From "How Language Works" by David Crystal

Collocational Range

"Two main factors can influence the collocational range of an item (Beekman and Callow, 1974). The first is its level of specificity: the more general a word is, the broader its collocational range; the more specific it is, the more restricted its collocational range. The verb bury is likely to have a much broader collocational range than any of its hyponyms, such as inter or entomb, for example. Only people can be interred, but you can bury people, a treasure, your head, face, feelings, and memories. The second factor which determines the collocational range of an item is the number of senses it has. Most words have several senses and they tend to attract a different set of collocates for each sense."
—From "In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation" by Mona Baker

George Carlin's Take on Collocations in Advertising

"Quality, value, style,
service, selection, convenience,
economy, savings, performance,
experience, hospitality,
low rates, friendly service,
name brands, easy terms,
affordable prices, money-back guarantee,
free installation.
"Free admission, free appraisal, free alterations,
free delivery, free estimates,
free home trial--and free parking.
"No cash? No problem. No kidding!
No fuss, no muss, no risk, no obligation,
no red tape, no down payment,
no entry fee, no hidden charges,
no purchase necessary,
no one will call on you,
no payments or interest till September.
"Limited time only, though,
so act now,
order today,
send no money,
offer good while supplies last,
two to a customer,
each item sold separately,
batteries not included,
mileage may vary,
all sales are final,
allow six weeks for delivery,
some items not available,
some assembly required,
some restrictions may apply."
—"Advertising Lullabye" by George Carlin

Further Resources


  • Pinker, Steven. "Words and Rules." HarperCollins, 1999
  • Crystal, David. "How Language Works." Overlook Press, 2005
  • Baker, Mona. "In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation." Routledge, 1992
  • Carlin, George "Advertising Lullabye" from "Napalm & Silly Putty." HarperCollins, 2001
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Collocations." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, October 29). Collocations. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Collocations." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).