Collocations & Idioms

So, if you want to take your English to the next level then you really need to start understanding and using collocations, and idioms. These 2 aspects of the English language are used every day by native speakers. Furthermore, they are commonly used in daily business interactions. They can be found in emails or spoken in a meeting. So, let’s look at what they are and how we can use them.

What will we learn?

By the end of today’s lesson, you will be able to identify collocations and have a better understanding of the importance of using collocations and in business.

You will also have some techniques on how to study and learn idiomatic expressions.

What are collocations

Firstly, we will review collocations. All languages have collocations, they are basically a pair or group of words that are often used together. Collocations sound natural to native speakers of a language. However, they can be difficult for people learning to speak English, especially when we translate. For example, Spanish speakers often confuse ¨Do¨ & ¨Make¨, this is because the verb hace = do & make. So, make a cake and do your homework are easily confused.

There are 2 two types of collocations, strong collocations and weak collocations. Strong collocations are words that go strongly together and there are no other options. For example, take a photo. Here no other word will collocate with photo and mean the same thing. However, we can catch or take the train and it still means the same thing.

What is interesting to know is that many native speakers of English will accept and understand collocation mistakes. So, collocations generally don’t impact negatively on understanding. Their correct use makes you sound much more fluent. In saying that, if you do say, “I did a few mistakes”. You will be perfectly understood.

Types of collocation

Collocations are everywhere, so you need to start understanding what types of collocations you can find out in the wild. Below I have listed the most common ways to form a collocation. What is interesting though, is that collocations don’t generally have a rule they just “sound” right. That is the point that we want to reach with our understanding of collocations. We don’t want to be thinking about rules, we just want them to feel natural.

adverb + adjective: seriously injured (NOT incredibly injured)

adjective + noun: strong coffee (NOT powerful coffee)

noun + noun: a stock option (NOT a stock choice)

noun + verb: a boss’s request (NOT a boss’s ask)

verb + noun: order food (NOT demand food)

verb + expression with preposition: burst into tears (NOT blow up in tears)

verb + adverb: remember vividly (NOT remember good)


Idioms are groups of words that go together to form expressions. These expressions are not easily guessed, as the words in the group alone don’t have the same meaning as when in the group. For example, an idiom in Spanish is “Tomar el pelo”. If we translate this literally it means to take the hair. Obviously, this makes no sense at all. However, if we know the translation, which is, to pull someone’s leg, then it obviously makes sense. Conversely, “to pull someone’s leg” literally in Spanish translate to “Tirar la pierna de alguien”.  As such, it is impossible to understand the meaning of many idioms even though we know the meaning of the individual words.

Strategies to learn business idioms

Right, we understand what idioms are, so now below I will give you some ideas of how we can start to look for them. The easiest way is to look at them in terms of categories. For example, if you know you are going into a negotiation with a client, then take the time to research some typical idioms relating to negotiations. You can easily incorporate this step into your negotiation preparation. If you have an English coach then you can dedicate one of your sessions to working on language in order to prepare for the negotiation.

Let’s take a look at some idioms for negotiations.

  • To find or reach common ground
  • To meet someone half way
  • A sticking point
  • To drive a hard bargain

Here we have listed four examples, you could obviously find more. However, I recommend that you only start with a few expressions and try and incorporate them into your negotiations. Once you feel comfortable using them, you could start to research more.

How to learn collocations & idioms

With that being said, let’s look at the how we can learn collocations.

Read: The best way to improve your knowledge of vocabulary and collocations is to read. When you are reading you need to read actively, this means start by trying to identify collocations & idioms within text. When you find a new collocation or idiom, then you need to copy them into a notepad or excel/word document.

Copy: if you are working with people who speak English natively, then copy them, and learn from their emails or discourse. When you see a good collocation or idiom in an email, make a note of it and make sure you look up the meaning so you can use it in your own emails.

Research: Just like you are now reading this post, be sure to do a Google search on business collocations and idioms or topic based ones. You can search for collocations based on a specific job or topic. For example, you could research all words that collocate with the verb do or make. Or you could look up common business idioms when you are killing time on your next business trip.

Dictionary: grab a copy of a collocation dictionary, there are many available. This will help you when you are stuck understanding a new collocation or looking for a specific collocation to use in your writing.

Final points

To sum up, collocations are words that naturally go together and idioms are words that form expressions when grouped together.

We hope that you find the tips useful and you start identifying collocations, as well as incorporating idioms into your next business activity.

Be sure to check out the accompanying podcast where we also discuss collocations and idioms. You will be able to improve your listening skills, collocations and idioms all at the same time.

Feel free to leave us any comments below, and if you want to practice then you can take the free course over at AOBE.

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