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Describing language
Describing language

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4.1 Collocation

A top-down shot of a table covered in mugs of all colours. The mugs are all filled with different types of liquid (presumably different types of tea and coffee)
Figure 4 A cup of...

You’ve already seen how word classes come together in expected patterns to make phrases and sentences. But word meanings can also pattern in similar ways. If you were asked to complete the following sentences, you’d likely choose tea/coffee, sugars and hot, respectively.

Do you want a cup of ____?

Yes, milk and two ____ please

Watch out, the mug is ____

This is because words do not carry their meaning in isolation. In a British context, being offered a cup of tea is a cultural norm and the phrase a cup of tea is well established. Similarly, we don’t understand each sentence we hear in isolation either; if you are familiar with making tea, you’ll know that milk and sugar are often also mentioned in the same context, and so, hearing the first question we are able to surmise that milk and two sugars is a likely response, while milk and two aubergines is not. Furthermore, patterns of word use build up over time and, when used frequently, these patterns come to be expected. Once these patterns have been established, we can get really creative with language and flout expectations by deviating from the established norm (often for humorous or dramatic effect).

Activity 4 More than the sum of its parts

Timing: This activity should take around 20 minutes

Watch the video below which explains how the meaning of a phrase can be more than the literal interpretation of the words it includes.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 Collocation and idioms
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Video 1 Collocation and idioms
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Activity 5 Complete the sentence

Timing: This activity should take around 20 minutes

Complete the following phrases by adding one of the following:

  • Bob’s; the handle; hell; money; out of the bag.
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  1. They ran hell for leather
  2. I just have to switch the toaster on and Bob’s your uncle
  3. My guess was right on the money
  4. I wanted it to be a surprise but his sister let the cat out of the bag
  5. He flies off the handle at the slightest thing these days

Don’t worry if you didn’t get all of these right. Remember, people only learn the meaning of idioms by being exposed to them in some way.