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Collocations, Compounds, Phrasal Verbs and Idioms

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Some of us are often confused by the use of terms like ‘collocation’, ‘compound’, ‘phrasal verb’ or ‘idiom’. Yet all terms describe particular word groups with a distinctive meaning they differ from each other. It’s useful to know the differences between them. The following paragraphs should help you to understand their main differences. At the end of the article you’ll find some links to exercises in the internet.


The term ‘collocation’ defines words which frequently appear together. If we analyzed a long text for words which are often used together we’ll find out that some words are ofen used in the same form. Using collocations will improve your style of spoken and written English, you’ll sound more natural and you’ll help you avoid common mistakes.

  • You must make an effort. [NOT do an effort]
  • Did you watch TV last Friday? [NOT look at TV]
  • There are some ancient monuments near by. [NOT antique monuments]
  •  The car has a powerful engine. [NOT strong engine]

As you can see collocations are very useful to sound like a fluent speaker. For students it’s often a challenge to learn them, because they are often difficult to guess. Learning collocations can also help to avoid mistakes in written English. If you would like to take a Cambridge Exam (FCE, CAE, ..) you should learn at least the 100 most common collocations.


In contrast to collocations compounds are units of meaning. They are formed with two or more words and they are nouns.

  • car park (n)
  • teapot (n)
  • post office (n)

Their meaning of compounds can often be guessed by knowing the meaning of each separate word.

Phrasal Verbs

Although ‘phrasal verbs’ are formed from two or three words. Their distinctive feature is that they have a particular meaning. Phrasal verbs are words that consist of a verb and a participle. Participles can be prepositions or adverbs like: at, for, in, of, in , (a)round, e.g.

  • look at
  • move up
  • miss out
  • keep away

Some of the phrasal verbs form one word when they are used as a noun:

  • crack down (v)
  • crackdown(n)
  • make up (v)
  • make-up (n)

Phrasal verbs don’t have to stand directly next to each other. Therefore it’s good to know the grammar patterns of phrasal verbs. Which means the subject [sb] or object [sth] related to the phrasal verb can stand between or at the end of the phrasal verb.

  • I’ll look you up in the part next Friday. [to visit sb]
  • Look the word up in the dictionary. [search for sth]
  • Things are looking up. [things improve]
  • Look after Joe/the plant. [care for sb/sth]


In conjunction with collocations and compounds idioms are word groups with a fixed word order and a specific meaning. The meaning of an idiom cannot be guessed by knowing the meaning of the individual words. Learning Idioms might be one of the most difficult tasks  to master a foreign language.


You see from the examples that it’s necessary to learn word group patterns by heart. Here you’ll find some exercises to learn the described word groups. Links marked with the asterisk (*) need a registration and might cost money after a trial period.



Phrasal verbs


If this article was helpful and you know other useful exercise resources feel free to write a comment.

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