THE STUDY OF COLLOCATIONS
'Collocations' are usually described as "sequences of lexical items which habitually co-occur [i.e. occur together]" (Cruse 1986:40). Examples of English collocations are: ‘thick eyebrows’, 'sour milk', 'to collect stamps', 'to commit suicide', 'to reject a proposal'. The term collocation was first introduced by Firth, who consideredthat meaning by collocation is lexical meaning "at the syntagmatic level" (Firth 1957:196). The syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations of lexical items can be schematically represented by two axes: a horizontal and a vertical one. The paradigmatic axis is the vertical axis and comprises sets of words that belong to the same class and can be substituted for one another in a specific grammatical andlexical context. The horizontal axis of language is the syntagmatic axis and refers to a word's ability to combine with other words. Thus, in the sentence 'John ate the apple' the word 'apple' stands in paradigmatic relation with 'orange', 'sandwich', 'steak', 'chocolate', 'cake', etc., and in syntagmatic relation with the word 'ate' and 'John'. Collocations represent lexical relations along thesyntagmatic axis.
Firth's attempt to describe the meaning of a word on the collocational level was innovative in that it looked at the meaning relations between lexical items, not from the old perspective of paradigmatic relations (e.g. synonyms, antonyms) but from the level of syntagmatic relations. Syntagmatic relations between sentence constituents had been widely used by structurallinguists (e.g. 'John ate the apple' is an 'Subject-Verb-Object' construction), but not in the study of lexical meaning. Up till now, studies on collocation have been insufficient in defining the concept of collocation in a more rigorous way (Cowan 1989:1). Since the term 'collocation' was introduced by Firth to describe meaning at the syntagmatic level, subsequent linguists and researchers havenot often attempted to define 'collocation' in a more thorough and methodical way. Collocation is still defined as the tendency of a lexical item to co-occur with one or more other words (Halliday, McIntosh & Strevens 1964:33; Ridout & Waldo-Clarke 1970; Backlund 1973, 1976; Seaton 1982; Crystal 1985:55; Cruse 1986:40; Zhang 1993:1). Although the theoretical treatment of collocations has beeninadequate, the teaching of collocations to second language (L2) learners has gained importance during the last decade. For a long time the emphasis in vocabulary learning has been on accumulating and memorising lists of word definitions, followed by gap filling exercises (Robinson 1989:276; Gitsaki 1992; for a review of the development of vocabulary teaching see Carter and McCarthy 1988). However,applied linguists realised that vocabulary skills involve more than
the ability to define a word. Suggestions were made for a new approach to vocabulary teaching that would avoid the previous emphasis on words in isolation and on word definitions. The new approach would include an examination of the syntagmatic relations of collocation between lexical items, a skill that is evident in theadult native speakers of a language (McCarthy 1984:14-16; Carter 1987:38; Sinclair 1991). The shift of interest towards lexical learning is also evident in the introduction of a new approach to L2 teaching. The Lexical Approach, as it is outlined by Lewis (1993), regards language as grammaticalised lexis and places the way words combine at the centre of its theoretical perspective (Hewitson &Steele 1993). Lexis becomes the central organising principle of the syllabus, and collocation assumes an important syllabus-generating role (Lewis 1993). Raising the learners' understanding of the collocations of words is a matter of first-rate importance (McCarthy 1984:21), since the task of learning collocations can present both intralingual and interlingual problems. 'Collocation' as a term...