Marry English Words Wisely: Handy Combinability Resources

HSE Academic Writing Center
6 min readJan 16, 2023

By Tatiana Martseva, Ph.D. in Germanic languages, CPE, DELTA (Cambridge), FTBE (Pearson). Tatiana has over 20 years of experience in teaching English for specific purposes, academic writing, presentation skills, cross-cultural communication, and linguistics.

Every text consists of words, and it seems easy to combine them into sentences in our mother tongue. However, it is not that simple when we write in a foreign language. We need to know quite a lot of information about the word to use it effectively. Namely, we have to find out the word’s form, meaning, and specifics of its use.

The concept of form covers such issues as spelling, pronunciation, word parts (prefix, root, suffix, and ending), and a grammatical form (mostly, number and tenses). When we speak about the word’s meaning, we should take into account its direct and indirect meanings, connotations (additional meanings) and associations. The idea of the word usage deals with the register (formal or informal), frequency of use, and collocations it forms.

A collocation is a term meaning a particular combination of words used together (Longman Dictionary 2022). Collocations are particularly important as none of the words exist in the language in an isolated environment; they always form partnerships with other notional and auxiliary words. Being native speakers of our mother tongue, we collocate words intuitively based on our linguistic experience, but using a foreign language it is necessary to check collocations for their authenticity. Let’s take an example of some collocations in Russian and English. There is a variety of combinations with the Russian verb “проводить”: проводить время, проводить встречу, проводить исследование, проводить друга. If we just translate the verb and the nouns that follow it separately, we can make plenty of mistakes with collocations. A translator built-in Collins Dictionary suggests only one English equivalent for the Russian verb “проводить” — conduct. However, once we start checking collocations, we will find out that the verb “conduct” forms an authentic collocation only with the noun “research”. The other Russian collocations mentioned above would have different verbs, e.g. spend time, hold a meeting, see a friend off.

All of this seems too complicated, but there are two clear ways to master collocations. The first one is experiential learning. When we read books or articles, listen to podcasts or audiobooks, watch some authentic films or videos, we can train ourselves to start noticing the words from the perspective of their form, meaning, and use in the context. It would be a great idea to get a paperback notebook or your smartphone notes application for jotting down the collocations you have come across. You might find it useful to organize them in word bubbles or word forks as it is suggested by the authors of Academic Vocabulary in Use (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Vocabulary Organization

Such non-linear organization will make the phrases more memorable. This sort of linguistic mindfulness will help us form our personal database of useful collocations that we can later retrieve in writing. This will lead to enriching our language repertoire immensely and making our manuscripts look more authentic.

The second way of learning collocations is using dictionaries. There is a wide range of them, but let me focus on contemporary electronic thesauri. Initially, a thesaurus was a book that clustered words similar in their meanings. At present, when all modern dictionaries are predominantly present in a digital form, all of them can be considered thesauri. There are top seven dictionaries of the English language that you can find online. All of them are free to use. They offer a variety of features that you can exploit while working on your articles or lectures.

The table presents the comparison of features offered by the top seven dictionaries.

Table 1
Dictionary Features in Comparison

As you can see, you may use dictionaries for multiple purposes, such as:

  • to find out how often a word is used in English
  • what level of language proficiency it is mostly associated with
  • what synonyms and more sophisticated alternatives it might have
  • what grammatical forms exist and how they are spelled, and
  • what collocations will look authentic.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, and you can discover many more ways to work with dictionaries.

The dictionaries offering the majority of features are Cambridge Online Dictionary of the English Language and Collins Dictionary. But my recommendation is to check all of these dictionaries out and select the one you like best in terms of its interface, user-friendliness, and useful features.

Another type of dictionary you can find useful is the dictionary of collocations. As you remember, knowing a word is not enough to collocate it properly with other words in the text. Explore, for example, Online Oxford Collocation Dictionary of English. Imagine that you need to describe challenges you face as a researcher. You can find a lot of suggestions for collocations with the word “challenge”: you can challenge a fellow researcher on their theory, or some problem can pose a challenge to your research, or something can represent a significant challenge to it. All these examples come from a collocation dictionary (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Layout of Online Oxford Collocation Dictionary

There is also one more way to check the authenticity of a phrase or collocation you are not sure about. This is a concordance. A concordance is an electronic resource uniting multiple corpora. One of the biggest concordances is named SKELL.Sketchengine; it unites the data from the largest corpora of English, accumulating several billions of text samples. It is based on the KWIC principle, which means that it shows the key word or phrase in context. To check out the authenticity or correctness of a collocation you would like to use, you can type it into the search field and look at the suggestions. For instance, if you are not sure whether to write an “amount of students” or a “number of students,” type each of these phrases into a concordance and compare the frequency of usage (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
Layout of SKELL.Sketchengine Concordance

As you can see, the phrase “amount of students” has got only 0.03 hits per million whereas “number of students” is much more frequently used in English, having 1.82 hits per million. That means that the former phrase is not standard, and you had better opt for the latter one.

To sum it up, there are various free online resources that can help you make your manuscripts authentic not only in terms of content but also in perfect and precise wording. Using the resources you will marry words wisely and create well-written and well-articulated texts with a clear message.

Have you got your favorite dictionaries or other combinability resources that you’d like to share?

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HSE Academic Writing Center

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.