May 28, 2017

Powerful tea and other (im)possible collocations

Photo by Christina Martidou
via ELTpics on Flickr
How do you explain the notion of collocation to your students? Apart from using this great song, I often employ this simple technique: I write on the board: make and do (in the left column), homework and a mistake (in the right) and ask students to match.

I then use the matched combinations (do+homework; make+mistake) as a springboard to talk about how certain words go with certain other words, how these combinations may seem arbitrary and how they may differ significantly from the learners' L1. In fact, in many languages do and make correspond to the same word: cf. ~ faire in French; ~ делать (dyelat') in Russian, which shows how words with similar meanings often differ in their collocational behaviour. 

To illustrate this phenomenon, Michael Halliday, the founder of Systemic Functional Linguistics, who coined the term "lexicogrammar", used the words powerful and strong. In his 1966 article, Halliday demonstrates how, despite having similar meanings, "powerful" and "strong" have syntagmatic restrictions and can be distinguished by virtue of their collocations:
strong tends to go with "tea" (but not with "car"); powerful tends to go with "car" (but not with "tea")
These two (nearly) synonymous adjectives can be said to have different collocational fields, which - in this case - overlap because both adjectives can, for instance, modify the noun "argument": 
strong / powerful argument

For Halliday this is central to his idea of lexis being a separate level of linguistic organisation: it shows how the behavior of two elements in a contrastive pair cannot be predicted syntactically. Following Halliday many authors have used (and abused) powerful tea to illustrate the concept of collocation in general.

My search on Google Scholar yielded a number of papers which refer to "powerful tea":

Liu, D. (2010), Going Beyond Patterns: Involving Cognitive Analysis in the Learning of Collocations. TESOL Quarterly, 44: 4–30
Lapata, M., McDonald, S., & Keller, F. (1999, June). Determinants of adjective-noun plausibility. In Proceedings of the 9th conference on European chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (pp. 30-36). Association for Computational Linguistics.

Martyńska, M. (2004). Do English language learners know collocations. Investigationes linguisticae, 11, 1-12.
Yamashita, J., & Jiang, N. (2010). L1 influence on the acquisition of L2 collocations: Japanese ESL users and EFL learners acquiring English collocations. TESOL Quarterly, 44(4), 647-668.

Then there are books that talk about collocation and use "powerful tea" for illustrative purposes:

Celce-Murcia, M., & McIntosh, L. (1991). Teaching English as a second or foreign language. Heinle & Heinle

Robinson, P., & Ellis, N. C. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition. Routledge. Chicago

And, of course, there are numerous websites, blogs and PowerPoints which can be found online - all using powerful tea to demonstrate the phenomenon of collocability. Many of them refer to powerful tea as impossible collocation. But as anyone interested in corpus linguistics will tell you, nothing is really impossible in a language - especially when it is used for humorous or creative purposes. Halliday himself never referred to powerful tea as "impossible"; a more accurate description would be "less plausible".

As another neo-Firthian, John Sinclair noted:

“There are virtually no impossible collocations, but some are much more likely than others” (1966, p. 411 as cited in Baker 2011). 

Th issue of possible/impossible is further complicated by the nature of search engines themselves. A quick search on Google reveals that "strong tea" is indeed much more frequent; however, "powerful tea" is nonetheless common. A word of caution is in place here. After sifting through the results you find that it's not really tea that is being modified by the adjective "powerful" but rather the noun that follows "tea" such as:

powerful tea properties
powerful tea party organisations

This is something learners who rely on Google to check their linguistic intuitions may overlook. That is why Google, though perfectly acceptable as a quick-and-dirty tool, is generally not very reliable for rigorous corpus study.

Most interestingly, however, all the mentions of powerful tea on the web - whether it is referred to as impossible or unlikely collocation - are picked by Google and appear as 'legitimate' results. In other words, the more people write about powerful tea, the more likely it is to pop up in Google search results. This blog post, in which powerful appears next to tea at least 7 times, will inevitably contribute to the number of search hits citing "powerful tea" thus increasing the plausibility of the implausible collocation.

But why use this particular example? Surely there are other adjective + noun collocations which can be called upon to elucidate the concept:

current affairs
rough idea
vivid imagination
reckless driver (personal favourite)

These are just some examples my colleagues suggested in a recent Facebook discussion on the topic.

There are many contrastive pairs (like powerful/strong or make/do) which can be used too:

big deal (as opposed to "large")
fast track or fast food (as opposed to "quick")
on a daily basis (as opposed to "everyday")

There's no lack of verb-noun collocations either.

What examples would you give students to explain what a collocation is? Which one is your favourite? Do you find it helps students grasp the idea? And finally how can you convince students of the importance of collocations if it is often a matter of what's more plausible, rather than correct / incorrect? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below (and do check out that song :)

Thanks to Umut Salihoğlu and Avraham Roos for their input


Baker, M. (2011). In other words: A coursebook on translation. Routledge.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1966). Lexis as a Linguistic Level. Journal of Linguistics 2(1): 57-67


  1. "Flat tyre" is a good one. Compare it to "pneu crevé" (Fr); "gomma a terra" (It.); "neumático pinchado" (Sp.); "lekke band" (Dutch); "platter Reifen" (German) and so on (according to Google Translate, at least.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Scott!
      Yes, "flat tyre" is a good one, although I wouldn't trust Google Translate, particularly with collocations. This is where their weakest point lies, don't you think?

  2. I always use 'high / tall building' or 'high guy / tall guy' as a preliminary example. This is usually followed with a light warning of sounding a bit alien (or potentially inappropriately poetic) if frequent collocations aren't used.

    1. Thank you, Tyson!
      Yes, high/tall is a good contrastive pair to start with. Mind, both "high" and "tall" are possible buildings.

    2. Hmm, are they?

      You live on one of the higher floors of this building. > This works for 'high' with building, but a specific part of the buiding.

      You live in a very tall building. > I can't imagine using 'high' as an equal substitute here, can you?

      What example are you referring to where they both work?

    3. It could, of course, be a matter of BrE vs NAmE varieties because I remember having this discussion with participants in a couple of my workshops. But I think both are possible because "tall" would imply that a building is thin, narrow and probably taller than other low-rise buildings around it, whereas "high" is... well it's just high. For example, I can imagine somebody saying that

      it is unnatural for humans to be living in HIGH BUILDINGS - humans are meant to be closer to the ground or some such

      implying here that it is far from the ground rather than referring to the shape of the building.

      Having said that I'd probably give your example "high floor in a tall building" to guide my Ss towards more common usage. Thanks!

  3. I usually use 'heavy smoker' and 'happy birthday'.

  4. My favourite is 'heavy rain' as in most of the languages I've learnt you say 'strong rain', and translating it as 'heavy' sounds funny to my learners. I then point out that the same works in the opposite direction, and that 'strong rain' sounds odd in English.

    1. Yes it does seem that most other languages use "strong" to modify "rain". On the contrary, the other popular example used a lot in the literature is "strong tea". Most other languages I know also use "strong" to describe "tea" so I never considered it a useful example for clarifying what a collocation is - that is until I had a student whose L1 was Sinhalese (spoken in Sri Lanka). Apparently in Sinhalese you say "thick tea" to refer to its strength. So for him "strong tea" was indeed an important example.

  5. nice this blog.
    You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. I’m looking to reading your next post.


  6. Nice blog and thank you for putting this together Dissertation Topics.

  7. Hi Lexical,

    My name is Anuj Agarwal. I'm Founder of Feedspot.

    I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog
    Leoxicon has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 100 ESL Blogs on the web.

    I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 100 ESL Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!

    Also, you have the honor of displaying the badge on your blog.


    1. Hi Anuj,

      Thank you. What great news! I'll check out the list. I'm sure many of my friends/colleagues are also in it. It also reminds me to update this blog more often ;)

      Thanks once again.
      P.S. How do I get the badge?

  8. Hi Leoxicon Team,

    My name is Anuj Agarwal. I'm Founder of Feedspot.

    I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog Leoxicon has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 50 TEFL Blogs on the web.

    I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 50 TEFL Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!

    Also, you have the honor of displaying the badge on your blog.


    1. Thank you, Anuj, for this and your previous message. And for the honour.

  9. thank you for this your broadcast provided bright clear concept..

  10. Very enlightening,makes me think twice about my high times, and low moments, or bright smiles and dark moods.

    1. ... You can add "bleak future" and "positive outlook" :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...