What we mean by collocation

Broad vs. narrow definition: In the study of collocations, there have been many suggestions on how the term "collocation" should be defined. In general, we can differentiate between broad(er) and narrow(er) definitions. The broad definitions are primarily geared toward quantitative and statistical analysis and are most commonly found in fields such as computer linguistics or corpus linguistics. They see a collocation as the simple co-occurrence of words within a corpus, regardless of the semantic value of these combinations. The narrow definition, which is geared towards qualitative and semantic research, sees collocations as specific types of phrases that fall somewhere between free word combinations on the one side and idiomatic expressions (e.g. fixed idioms) on the other. Collocations are thus neither "freely" combinable, nor fully idiomaticized. This is why they are often referred to as "semi-fixed".

Collocation structure “base + collocator”: According to the narrow, semantic definition, collocations are hierarchically organized, binary word combinations that are made up of two parts: the so-called base and the so-called collocator. The base is hierarchically higher than the collocator (in other words, the choice of collocator is always dependent on the base). The base word is usually used in its literal sense, while the meaning of the collocator within the collocation can be different from the word's basic or literal meaning. The collocator is thus the "unpredictable" half of the pair, the part that may differ from language to language, and the part that foreign language learners often don't know, get wrong or have to look up. For instance, in the collocations piantare un chiodo (‘hammer/drive [lit. “plant”] a nail into a wall’), la lezione salta (‘the lesson is cancelled [lit. “jumps”]’), and un CD/DVD vergine (‘a blank [lit. “virginal”] CD/DVD’), the nouns chiodo, lezione and CD/DVD are the bases, and the verbs piantare and saltare and the adjective vergine are the collocators.

Types of collocations based on morpho-syntactical aspects:

  1. Noun (subject) + verb: la fiamma / la luce tremola / vacilla ‘the flame / the light flickers’, lo stomaco brontola ‘the stomach growls’, il tempo stringe ‘time is short / time's a-wasting / time is of the essence’
  2. Verb + noun (direct object): appuntire una matita ‘sharpen a pencil’, battere un record ‘break a record’, ingannare la fiducia (di qcn.) ‘abuse (someone's) trust’; stretched verb construction: dare un’occhiata (a qcs. / qcn.) ‘to have / take a look (at someone or sth.) / to keep an eye on sth.’, fare naufragio ‘to be shipwrecked’
  3. Verb + prepositional phrase: fumare / ribollire di rabbia ‘to be very angry / boiling mad’, morire / scoppiare di curiosità ‘to be dying of curiosity’; stretched verb construction: andare a fuoco ‘to burn / to catch fire’, mettere (qcs.) in moto ‘to put (sth.) in motion / to start e.g. a car’
  4. Verb + adverb / prepositional phrase (in the function of a modal adverb): ancorare saldamentefirmly anchor’, fallire miseramente ‘fail miserably’, pentirsi amaramente (di qcs.) ‘to regret (sth.) terribly / bitterly’
  5. Noun + adjective / prepositional phrase (in the function of an attribute): un argomento delicato / spinoso ‘a delicate topic / subject’, una sfacciataggine inaudita ‘colossal cheek / impudence’, uno scherzo da prete ‘a bad joke’
  6. Adjective / participle + adverb / prepositional phrase (in the function of an attribute): perdutamente innamorato ‘to be deeply / madly / head-over-heels in love’, ubriaco fradicio ‘dead drunk / drunk as a skunk’, nuovo di zecca / fiammante ‘brand (spanking) new’

Types of collocations based on semantic aspects:

  1. Collocations with a semantically very specific collocator that has a very large intension and a very restricted collocational range: il sole tramonta ‘the sun sets’, digrignare i denti ‘to bear one's teeth’, un naso camuso ‘a flat nose’
  2. Collocations with a polysemous collocator which, within the collocation, has taken on a different/modified meaning from its basic or literal meaning (usually in some metaphorical sense): la collera sbollisce / svanisce ‘the anger vanishes’, nutrire speranza ‘to entertain hopes’, una fiducia cieca ‘blind trust’
  3. Collocations with a semantically empty or vague collocator that has a very small intension and a very large collocational range (often a stretched verb construction): prendere una decisione ‘to make a decision’, mettere (qcs.) in rilievo ‘to emphasize sth. / to put in relief’, porre un freno (a qcs. / qcn.) ‘to put the brakes on sth./sb. / to rein sb. in’
  4. Elliptical collocations (rare): il cellulare non prende ‘the mobile phone has no signal’ (lit. “the phone won't take”), il rubinetto perde ‘the faucet / tap is leaky / dripping’ (lit. “is losing”; in this example the direct object acqua ‘water’ is omitted, giving the combination collocation status)
  5. Collocations bordering on free word combinations: these combinations only allow certain collocators while others (which should theoretically be possible) are not allowed or sound very odd: occhi storti ‘cross-eyed’ (not possible: ?occhi obliqui), levare / cavare / estirpare / estrarre / strappare / togliere un dente ‘too pull a tooth’ (not possible: ?tirare un dente)

Exceptions - semi-idiomatic collocations: Semi-idiomatic or partially idiomatic collocations have an idiomaticized collocator, as is the case in un numero verde ‘a (toll)free [lit. “green”] (phone) number’. However, since the base is not used idiomatically (numero = ‘(phone) number’), this type of lexical combination is only partially idiomatic, and thus cannot be considered a full idiom; it is still a collocation because at least one part of the combination is used in its literal sense and the overall meaning can still be derived from the meanings of its parts. Some semi-idioms show an “unusual collocational syntax”, as is the case with divertirsi un mondo (‘to be highly diverted / to have a wonderful time’, lit. “to be a world amused”). In this case, divertirsi is the base because it is the part that can be understood literally, while the modal adverb un mondo is an idiomatically used collocator.

Exceptions - compound words: Certain lexical combinations that are made up of a noun + adjective or prepositional phrase are rendered as compounds (i.e. a word made up of several individual words) in German; e.g. tetto apribile (‘sun roof, sliding roof, retractable roof’) = German Schiebedach / Hebedach. This is mostly the case when a word designates a specific type or subclass of something (tetto apribile = type / subclass of tetto). From a learner’s perspective, there is a collocation-like relationship between the parts of this combination (tetto can be identified as a base, while apribile can be seen as a kind of “unpredictable” collocator that is specific to each individual language). Phrases such as vicolo ciecodead end’ (lit. “blind street”), letto a castello (‘bunk bed’, lit. “castle bed”) and foresta vergine ‘primeval forest / jungle’ (lit. “virginal forest”) must be learned in the same manner as collocations. Therefore, this type of lexical combination will also be included in our learner's dictionary.

Comparing word combinations in Italian and German. A research project.