Colligation, patterns, rules and elf

Hugh Dellar’s Webinar:

Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity of a bottom-up approach to grammar


This Saturday I attended High Dellar’s webinar, which should be available as a video on the Iatefl site. He described the phenomenon of colligation clearly and called for more focus on patterns rather than rules in English teaching. At the same time there was an illuminating discussion going on in the chat box, where various opinions were being expressed and I was playing the devil’s advocate, questioning whether or not an over sophisticated focus on native speaker patterning was justified when so many learners do not really need it in our world. So, just in case you’re wondering: what is colligation all about?

What is Colligation?

Colligation means different things to different linguists but in teaching we often adapt the purely linguistic definitions to something this is more significant, or practical for classroom teaching. Michael Hoey, in his influential book Lexical Priming develops his theory of priming both when it comes to collocation and also in other cases, explaining, to try to put it in a nutshell, that the reason words collocate, or we feel so comfortable with certain collocations is that we are “primed” to expect them, having been exposed to them so much as native speakers. Hoey demonstrated this with a comparison of collocation that works in Bill Bryson’s writing Neither Here nor There and a similar version where the collocations are “unnatural”:

“In winter Hammerfest is a thiry-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering (the original)

“Through winter, rides between Oslo and Hammerfest use thirty hours up in a bus, though why travellers would select to ride there then might be pondered.” (Hoey’s version with unnatural collocations) (Hoey, M. op cit. p.5)

Hoey explains linguistic priming as the way that we would expect certain words to follow others naturally. In his example, for instance, he says that a listener who had heard the word ‘body’ would be quicker to hear the word ‘heart’ than if the former word had been something unrelated like ‘trick’. In this way hearing one word primes you to understand another related word more easily.

So, you may wonder why I’m talking about priming and collocation when the heading of this sub section is ‘What is Colligation?’ Well, bear with me. Hoey goes on to say that priming occurs in other ways as well and one of those is colligation:

‘Every word is primed to occur in ( or avoid) certain grammatical functions; these are its colligations.’ (Hoey, M. op cit. p.13)

In a Nutshell

In ELT we have simplified all this a bit so that we think of collocations as those words that tend to co-occur, often in particular grammatical couplings like verb/noun collocations: to have a shower, to catch a train etc. and the colligations are the way specific words (with specific meanings)  co-occur with grammatical features and patterns such as:

  1. to depend + prep. ‘on’ + noun:  He depends on his car (This was included in the webinar but actually I think it’s the collocation with ‘of’ that causes trouble. In any case it is a question of patterning and so interesting for that reason 🙂 )
  2. to find + pronoun + descriptive adjective like ‘interesting’:  I find it interesting to see how the novel develops.
  3. to want + personal pronoun +to + inf. : I want you to think about this carefully.

These patterns are very obvious to native speakers, but not at all obvious if English is your L2 especially because you will have been primed to use different patterns in your first language which is why Italian speakers find it very difficult to remember not to say ‘ He depends of his car’ or ‘I find interesting to see how the novel develops’, or ‘I want that you think about this carefully’.

Some of these seem to worry teachers more than others, but they are all examples of the same phenomenon which is simply not choosing the correct colligational pattern, either because you, as a learner, have never thought about it, or, which is possibly more likely, because your own L1 colligational priming is so strong that it overrides something that feels unnatural to you in the L2.

Does this matter?

The next question, of course, is whether this all matters or not. In the discussion the question of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)  arose, and that is only natural. In a world where as Crystal, for instance said in his book English as a Global Language,  in the early 2000s English was already being spoken by 1.5 billion people, many of them are not communicating with native speakers, or rather they may be communicating with native speakers as well as with everyone else. This means that the use being made of English does not naturally refelct native speaker norms, and basically, does it really matter whether they use the “correct preposition” or “pattern” or not? I played the devil’s advocate in this discussion, by asking whether we are justified in spending a lot of time insisting on native speaker patterns from our learners, when they will then go out into the world and survive quite happily without them. Shouldn’t we be concentrating more on negotiation or accommodation skills to help them when they are doing that?

Providing Choices

This was partly provocative but these are questions that plague me and I have often, like many others asked myself which model of English we should be teaching. Ultimately, however, and I’ve said this before, I think that not alerting students to patternings like these colligations and collocations means doing them a disservice. Learners are usually quite intelligent enough to be able to decide themselves what is important and many of them ‘want to know’ how these things work.

I think Sue Annan’s comment in the webinar discussion about it being a question of what learners need and expect (or words to that effect. Sorry, Sue, I can’t remember exactly 😦 ) hits the nail on the head. The question of models, in fact, is perhaps missing the point. Our learners need to be exposed to English of all kinds, and they will then develop their own. It is not, perhaps so important to choose a specific model as to familiarise them with the things they need to know, allowing them to read the texts that are of interest and are relevant to them, and enabling them to produce the language they will need and want to produce.

The question of ‘wanting’ is very important too. You may only ‘need’ to use a certain type of English at work, but that does not mean that you are not interested in learning other things too. Even if you don’t use those patterns, or can’t remember them, the fact of being exposed to them or alerted to their existence gives you as a learner more choices.

Being articulate means reaching out to others


The more you notice language, and this is just as true of your L1 as your L2 or L3, the more you read, listen and play with words and their patterns the more articulate you become. The more you learn to listen to others and to negotiate meaning with them or to accommodate to their language the more meanings are created and the more links are forged between people and ideas. This can only be a good thing, so instead of getting worked up about models of English I’m going to teach my learners about language, by means of my own model of English which was once Yorkshire but has now resided in Verona for so long that it may well have lost its identity. What I mean is that the model is only the starting point but the language you use and it is the meanings you create that are the power in language use.


5 thoughts on “Colligation, patterns, rules and elf

  1. Hi Sharon,
    I think you give a very fair synopsis of Hugh Dellar’s webinar, which I was at too (although I didn’t participate in the chat, multi-tasking not being a speciality!). I agree with everything that you and Hugh (and Michael Hoey for that matter) have said but I’m commenting here just to get your thoughts – and those of any passing ELT people – on a couple of things that bother/interest me: (1) Isn’t the notion of colligation, or looking for grammatical patterns in language, already covered in most course books I have used but they call it “Verb Patterns” – or have I missed something key here? (2) Hugh talks about looking for patterns rather than giving learners rules, but patterns like the ones you quote above are basically ‘rules’ aren’t they? (3) On the ELF point, if international communication is going to work optimally does there not need to be a high degree of agreement amongst users of the language as to what the accepted patterns are in order to avoid confusion?
    Thanks for the blog post, it was a welcome digest of an interesting webinar.

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thank you for your thoughts and questions. I can only say what I think about ELF, not being an expert. The question of which model to teach always seems to fall down, as far as I can see, for precisely the reasons you say, but also because different learners have different needs. ELF researchers like Barabara Seidlhofer and Jennifer Jenkins are doing a lot of work to establish a core ELF syllabus, but I don’t really see it as a model. What it is very useful for is noting features that nobody really uses very much without any problems in comprehension being caused, such as not pronouncing ‘th'(haven’t got phonetics on my phone 😦 ) or features such ad uncountable nouns being made countable like ‘informations’ for instance or question tags, or choosing the wrong rrlative pronoun. As a result of thus teachers can decide for themselves how much time they may or may not want to spend on such features.

      Now, the question of colligation. You are right, of course, that coursebooks already teach verb patterns. The difference is thatcolligations are grammatical features that are very closely bound up with specific lexical items, so this may be an article, a pronoun like ‘I find it difficult’ followed by a verb pattern such as ‘to do something. Coursebooks teach patterns but not always with the lexical focus. I don’t know if I’ve explained it clearly enough. I’m sure others would be more articulate than me. Any takers?

  2. While it is true that most English language communication takes place between non-native speakers, it doesn’t follow that that means that teachers should ignore native speaker models. The important thing is not “who are my students using their English with now?” but “Who might they be using their English with in the future?” If we fail to equip students with native speaker models, we are failing to equip with them language that may be essential at some future date (for example, a university student on a language course may use their English now to communicate with fellow students on an Erasmus program but they may one day aim to write an academic article for a world audience).
    It’s important to give students the power and opportunity to choose which level of English they aspire to imitate. They are quite capable of making their own decisions here. I once taught a Finnish student who made ceramic products and sold them to customers in Poland. He kept pronouncing ceramic with a /k/ not an /s/ at the start. When I corrected him, he said to me, “Look, I say ‘keramic’, all my customers say ‘keramic’ and we all understand each other so I’m going to keep saying it that way. Fair enough, but just in case he expanded his business to English-speaking markets at some future date, he also needed to know the correct sounds to use.

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