Musings on Five Collocations

By Maeve Maddox

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Speech and writing are made up of single words, but most words we use are grouped as phrases. Many of these groupings occur again and again in specific patterns. Linguists call these predictable patterns collocations:

collocation: The habitual juxtaposition or association, in the sentences of a language, of a particular word with other particular words; a group of words so associated. —Oxford English Dictionary

Some common collocations are make the bed, come to a decision, go hunting, get married, have lunch, keep calm, and keep the change.

Some collocations become so familiar they can be classed as proverbs and cliches, like better safe than sorry, first come, first served, the early bird catches the worm, all’s well that ends well, this too shall pass, a stitch in time saves nine, and practice what you preach.

Collocations do shift over time. Perhaps some speakers depart deliberately from the predictable word in an effort to be original. Or perhaps the old phrasing shifts because of a changed worldview or merely because of unfamiliarity with the traditional versions.

Here are five examples of collocations that sound wrong to me. I checked each one in the Ngram Viewer to see if they were in fact more common than I imagined. (I’ve been wrong before. Case in point: crazy as a bessie bug.)

Here are five collocations that strike me as odd.

Two hands are better than one.

In an episode of Bones, a new agent wants Booth to take him along to investigate a case. To persuade Booth, he says, “Two hands are better than one.” Booth waggles his hands and says, “I have two hands.” The more appropriate expression in the context would have been “two heads are better than one.”

Two heads are better than one: one person can profit from the experience or advice of another.

Two hands are better than one Obviously! Anyone who has ever injured one hand can agree. This one doesn’t show up at all in the Ngram Viewer.

Who might have had it out for Jeff?

This quotation is also from a television episode, but I failed to note the series. The sense was “who may have wished to harm Jeff?”

This phrasing seems to conflate two idioms.

to have it in for someone is to dislike someone and wish to do them harm.

to look out for someone is to be alert to the well-being of someone, “to have one’s back.”

There is also the idiom, to have it out, meaning, “to engage in a frank discussion of a problem.”

The collocation “have it out for,” searched along with “have it in for” does make a showing in the Ngram Viewer, but it’s difficult to tell when the meaning shifted from the sense of “engaging in frank discussion” to “wishing ill to.” The latter seems to be fairly recent and rare.

From holiday baking projects to relaxing pots of tea, I’ve put my 3-inch Kuhn Rikon Stainless Steel Strainer to task.

This food writer has used put to task with the meaning “put to use.” As I’d never seen this collocation, I assumed he had misunderstood the idiom take to task.

take to task : call someone to account for a neglected responsibility. This definition appears in Dr. Johnson’s 1809 dictionary.

The Ngram Viewer documents put to task in nineteenth century sources as part of the phrase put to task-work. In nineteenth-century workhouses, paupers were “put to task-work” to earn their keep. In the 1900s, the word work drops out of that phrase and the meaning “put to task” begins to take on the meaning of “put to use.” Compared to the more common collocation, the “put to task” version is rare.

It’s good because people lower their guards.

lower your guard: become less guarded or vigilant.

This expression comes from the sport of fencing and can apply to other sports, like boxing and cricket. Here, the meaning of the noun guard is “a defensive posture.” Although apparently enough writers incorrectly use the plural form to cause it to appear in the Ngram Viewer, the word is always singular, regardless of whether the referent is one person or several.

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2 Responses to “Musings on Five Collocations”

  • Isaac Ge

    So native speakers will make mistakes too.

  • Maeve

    Isaac Ge,
    But of course!

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