One common habit of second-language English speakers is to speak “dictionary English.” They might be extremely well-read, but they can sound stilted. I’ve been listening recently to Indian speakers on YouTube. They might use “Divine cow!” as an exclamation, when every six-year old American knows it’s “Holy cow!” And what’s the difference between “sacred cow” and “holy cow”? This can really be confusing to adult learners.
A harmonizing massage or a relaxing massage? Do you say the average German, the usual German or the normal German? Do you feel anxiety or do you experience it? Many of these constructions are correct, but what’s the idiomatic choice? Collocations are combinations of words that “co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.”
You won’t find them in a dictionary or thesaurus. Natives know them by gut feeling. They’re those worn-out figures of speech, that Orwell advised against.
For translations, however, collocations are very helpful, because they make texts sound less translated. They also help proofreaders justify their preferential choices. But how do you find them?
There are several smart ways to search for collocations. Google is the most obvious and works for many languages. However, it’s not targeted and you can’t search for combinations of word classes, such as adjective + noun.
For English, you can use netspeak.eu, Skell, Just-the-Word or the paid Sketch Engine. These are basically concordance searches, or as I like to call them, statistical dictionaries.
The great advantage of these corpus tools is that they don’t rely on human-edited dictionary entries, but just analyze language use to give you the most common phrase.
Netspeak.eu is great to compare word frequency, word order or finding synonyms.
Just the word is a very powerful tool for searching for word classes. If you search for “cow,” you can filter by word classes (noun, adjective) and collocations.
You can also check out the paid tool Sketch Egine. It’s free for researchers and is under development. It has a huge range of functions and a user-friendly interface. There are paid options for professional linguists.
What are your experiences with these tools? Do you know any other advanced tools for linguists? Tell me in the comments!