Collocation: the secret to more fluent and precise writing

Whether you write to inform, entertain, persuade, create a mood, or something else, the ultimate goal of writing is the same: to convey your message so that your readers understand it effortlessly.

When a reader has to work too hard to understand your writing, they get distracted, switch off, and sometimes even start to question your credibility. So what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen?

We know that editing and proofreading are important parts of the writing process, but another thing we can do is expand our vocabulary to include words and expressions that help us sound more natural and convey our meaning with more precision. We can achieve this by thinking about collocation.

What is collocation?

We can look at the word itself to understand the basic meaning:

‘co-’ means ‘together’

‘location’ refers to the ‘place or position’ of something

So, ‘collocation’ essentially means ‘placed together’. Words that collocate are words that are commonly used together.

Why is using collocations useful?

Understanding collocation helps us:

1. sound more natural when we write;
2. be more precise in our description;
3. create meaning by providing context.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail below.

1. It helps us sound more natural.

This happens because collocations are combinations of words that people are used to seeing written together and in a particular order. Words that are not usually used together are more likely to distract our readers and make them question our fluency in English.  

2. It helps us be more precise in our description.

Let’s say we’re writing a post and want to tell our readers that it’s cold today – so cold that it makes us shiver. We could say ‘very cold’, but that doesn’t give us a lot of information. Instead, if we look for adverbs that go with the adjective ‘cold’, we find:

bitingly cold
bitterly cold
freezing cold

Even though all of these essentially mean ‘very’, each one evokes a much more interesting mood.

3. It helps to create meaning by providing context.

Let’s examine two sentences to see what this might look like:

(i) They sat the exam last week.
(ii) They performed the exam last week.  

These two sentences are identical except for the verbs used: ‘sat’ and ‘performed’. Although both verbs essentially mean ‘did’, the context in which they’re commonly used with the noun ‘exam’ is different, which makes an understanding of collocation critical to our understanding of each sentence.

to sit an exam: to complete a test designed to assess your knowledge, usually done by a student

to perform an exam: to do a physical inspection of someone’s body, usually done by a healthcare professional

Now we’re able to understand that sentence (i) is about a student who took a test last week while sentence (ii) tells us a healthcare professional examined a patient. We wouldn’t have been able to make this distinction if we had used the verb ‘did’.

How can we expand our knowledge of collocations?

Collocations are groups of words that are often used together, so we can essentially find them everywhere we look! From a short slogan on a T-shirt to a 80,000 word novel – we can see examples of language in use all around us.


I will always recommend reading as an excellent way to expand your vocabulary, but do be mindful of your choice of reading material. Posts on social media can be an excellent source of language that real people use every day; however, this type of writing may not always be accurate, so I advise you to proceed with caution! Professional writing is a more reliable source to learn from – think traditionally published books, magazines, and even articles written by editorial professionals (like this one, of course!).   

Using a dictionary

If you’re not an avid reader, you might approach learning collocations from a different angle and explore them as you write. A helpful resource for this is a collocations dictionary.


Adverbs frequently used with write

  • very well: beautifully, brilliantly, elegantly, eloquently, superbly, well
    The play is witty, well-constructed, and elegantly written.
    She writes well, but somehow her characters don’t seem very sympathetic.
  • Not well: badly, poorly
    Badly written letters could be costing firms millions in lost customers.

The Macmillan Collocations Dictionary also includes in-depth information on how the dictionary was created alongside some advice on how to use it.

Final thoughts

Expanding your knowledge of collocations will have a positive impact on your writing whether you consider yourself a professional writer, a beginning writer, or something in between. Your fluency will benefit, you’ll be able to communicate with greater precision, and most importantly, your readers will enjoy a smoother reading experience that will allow them to focus on what’s important: your message.


Thanks for visiting – see you next time!

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