Journal of
Languages and Culture

  • Abbreviation: J. Lang. Cult.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN: 2141-6540
  • DOI: 10.5897/JLC
  • Start Year: 2010
  • Published Articles: 131

Full Length Research Paper

The nature of lexical collocational errors committed by advanced Iranian learners of English

Ali Shiravani Shiri*
  • Ali Shiravani Shiri*
  • Philosophy of Education, Farhangian University, Shiraz, Iran.
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Firooz Sadighi
  • Firooz Sadighi
  • Department of English, Shiraz Branch, Islamic Azad University, Shiraz, Iran
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Maral Azizi
  • Maral Azizi
  • Department of English, Shiraz Branch, Islamic Azad University, Shiraz, Iran.
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Marziyeh Nekoueizadeh
  • Marziyeh Nekoueizadeh
  • Department of English Language, Marvdasht Branch, Islamic Azad University, Marvdasht, Iran.
  • Google Scholar

  •  Received: 26 July 2016
  •  Accepted: 27 October 2016
  •  Published: 31 January 2017


Collocations are among the pervasive features of languages, and English seems to be particularly rich in such multi-word lexemes. Since they have not received due attention pedagogically, this research aimed at identifying problems facing advanced Iranian learners of English in producing collocations. Over 100 pages of materials written by 30 participants were carefully studied and a list of lexical collocations was extracted. The list was then analyzed and different types of correct and incorrect lexical collocations were determined. Results showed that Iranian advanced learners of English do have serious problems with English collocations. The problematic collocations were identified and assigned to six types of collocations. The most problematic type was Adjective + Noun combinations and the least problematic ones were those of Adverb + Adjective and Noun +of + Noun. The results of the study can have theoretical and pedagogical implications for syllabus designers, translators, material writers and, of course, teachers of the English language.

Key words: Lexical collocations, collocational errors, lexical combinations, Iranian EFL learners.


It is widely believed today that collocations play an important role in second language acquisition (SLA). Much of our ‘vocabulary’ consists of prefabricated chunks of different kinds. The single most important kind of chunk is collocation. It has been nineteen years since the appearance of Lewis’ book (1993), The Lexical Approach, directing language teachers’ attention to the systematic re-examination of the importance of collocations in English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) education. First brought up by Palmer  (1933)   and   later   introduced   to   the   field  of theoretical linguistics by Firth (1957), the most commonly shared definition of collocations is: the tendency of one word to co-occur with one or more other words in a particular domain. In his monograph Second Interim Report on English Collocations, the father of collocation studies, linguist Palmer (1933) simply states “Each collocation must or should be learnt, or is best or most conveniently learnt as an integral whole or independent entity, rather than by the process of piecing together their component parts”.

Firth (1957) introduced  the  notion of  collocation  as  a part of his overall theory of meaning. It is at the collocational level of analysis‚ between the situational and grammatical, that he proposes to deal with lexical meaning. There are different definitions of collocation in the literature because of its importance in all languages, collocations make up around 7% of what is produce by language (Hill, 2000) and they are common in all languages (Mongolchai, 2008), Ellis (2001, 2002) regard collocations as ‘linguistic chunking’ that enables user to use them in his/her performance through subconscious process. Also, Nation (2001) interprets collocation as the tendency of one word to co-occur with other words in a specific domain. Similarly, collocations can be defined as either “the way in which words co-occur in natural texts in statistically significant ways” (Lewise, 2000) or “the co-occurrence of lexical meaning of words with other surrounding lexical units” (Jing, 2008).

One of the main reasons why collocations are paramount amongst the rest of lexical elements is their high frequency in the language (Kennedy, 1990; Walsh, 2005; Shin, 2007; Zengin, 2009). As opposed to idioms, collocations can hardly be paraphrased or substituted by a synonymous expression (Farghal and Obiedat, 1995). On the other hand, Koosha and Jafarpour (2006) revealed a profound lack of collocational knowledge among Iranian English as a foreign language (EFL) learners; little attention has been devoted to collocational patterns in teaching syllabus and the lack of exposure to the target language. The focus of professional research studies carried out in our country (Akbari, 1995; Zarei, 2002; Khoosha and Jafarpour, 2006; Sadeghi, 2009; Falahi and Moinzadeh, 2012) refer to the use of collocations in the learner’s written product rather than oral performance. Hence, it is essential that the non-native speaker use language fluently and accurately.

Collocational patterns are the underpinning of each language, make differentiate native speaker from second language learner (Moon, 1992; Fontenelle, 1994; Lennon, 1996; Herbst, 1996; Wouden, 1997; Nation, 2001; Ellis, 2001; Nesslhaf, 2003; Li, 2005; Koya, 2006; Huang, 2007; Hsu and Chiu, 2008), that should be acquired by second language learners; lack knowledge of collocational patterns consequently leads to breakdown of comprehension. So, increasing communicative power of learners depends on the learners’ awareness of collocations (Channel, 1981; Sadoughvanini, 2012).

The ‘subjective’ and ‘arbitrary’ nature of collocations causes some problems for learners (Benson et al., 1985). Gui and Yang (2002) also found out that the mistake in collocations was the most dominant mistake that students face in their study conducted with Chinese EFL students. Altenberg and Granger (2001) and Nesselhauf (2003) show that even students learning English at advanced levels have problems with collocations. Because, collocations refers to “an arbitrary and syntagmatic link between at least two lexemes (verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives) for example: commit a crime, blissfully unaware” (Zinkgraf, 2008).

Students’ lack of awareness of the existence of collocational patterns results in excessive reliance on L1 to L2 transfer (Farghal and Obiedat, 1995; Khoosha  and Jafarpour, 2006). Mahmoud (2005) extracted 420 collocations from 42 essays written by Arabic-speaking university students majoring in English that 61 percent from 64 percent of the incorrect word combinations were made due to negative transfer from Arabic. Similarly, interference of the first language in the production of collocations was showed by Sadeghi (2009) study. He showed in his research that 76 participants ‘collocational errors refer to L1 interference by considering the effect of collocational differences between the two languages (that is, Persian and English). Thus, students tend to produce deviant collocations following the wrong assumption that there is always a one-to-one correspondence between their mother tongue and the target language in terms of collocations.

Authors, who are more concerned with psycholinguistic views, contend that the main reason why collocations are a difficult aspect for non-native speakers is to be found in the way they acquire and mentally organize new vocabulary. Contrary to natives, L2 students seem to start by learning individual words and gradually build up bigger chunks, so it becomes particularly hard for them to establish strong associations between pairs of words forming collocations (Schmitt and Underwood, 2004; Wray, 2002). For this reason, they tend to overuse the creative combination of isolated words, rather than store and produce ready-made collocations.

Objectives of the study

The objectives of the study are as follows:

1. To determine which type or types of lexical collocations are most problematic for advanced Iranian EFL learners, and which types the least problematic.

2. To determine whether the difference between the participants’ use of different types of correct and incorrect lexical collocations is significant or not.

More specifically answers to the following questions are sought:

Question 1. Are there any types of lexical collocational errors which are the most/ least common for Iranian learners?

Question 2. Is the difference between the participant’s use of different types of correct or incorrect lexical collocations significant or not?

Significance of the study

The lack  of  collocational competence is noticeable when non-native speakers of English need productive language knowledge. Students either use only the limited number of lexical collocations they know or under the influence of their first language “create” unnatural and farfetched collocations. Collocational knowledge helps students to overcome problems of vocabulary style and usage. It may improve their oral skills‚ their listening comprehension‚ and reading speed. It is hoped that the findings of the present study will help material developers to develop and provide suitable texts‚ and teachers to select suitable methods to teach lexical collocations to Iranian EFI learners‚ and also to broaden teachers’ knowledge of different types of lexical collocations.

Theoretical framework

Collocations fall into different categories. According to Aisenstadt (1981) all word associations in the language can be divided into two types: Idiomatic and non- idiomatic.

Idiomatic collocation

Idiomatic collocations are known as frozen expressions or fixed combinations. The meanings of idioms do not reflect the meaning of their individual parts. They have fixed patterning. For example, the idiom “red tape” means excessive bureaucracy‚ which has no relation to the meanings of the words “red” or “tape”.

Non-idiomatic collocation

Non-idiomatic collocations are subdivided into free and restricted combinations. Free collocations are: “com-binations of two or more words with free commutability within the grammatical and semantic framework of the language; they are the vast majority of collocations in the language” (Asienstadt, 1981). The second type of non-idiomatic combinations is called restricted collocations. These are expressions whose meanings reflect the meanings of their constituent parts as opposed to idiomatic combinations. They follow certain structural patterns. Benson et al. (1997) classify restricted collocations into two categories: grammatical and lexical.

Grammatical collocation

Grammatical collocation is a phrase‚ which is composed of a preposition and a main word noun‚ adjective‚ and verb or a structural pattern such as a clause or two-word verbs. Benson et al. (1997) believe that there are eight major types of grammatical collocations in English:

Noun + Preposition ability in/at

Noun + to + Infinitive a problem to do

Noun + that clause we reached an agreement that

Preposition + Noun on purpose

Adjective + Preposition tired of

Adjective + to +Infinitive easy to learn

Adjective + that clause she was delighted that

Verb + Preposition believe in

Lexical collocation

Benson et al. (1986) believe that typical lexical collocations consist of nouns‚ adjectives‚ verbs, infinitives or clauses. With such a distinction in mind‚ Benson et al. (1997) list the following types of lexical collocation in English:

Verb +Noun make a decision

Adjective +Noun weak tea

Noun + verb alarms go off

Noun +of +Noun a bunch of keys

Adverb +Adjective quiet safe

Verb+Adverb walk heavily

What is under focus here is English lexical collocations referring to their different types and categorization to find out which type or types are more problematic for Iranian EFI learners. 


In this part, a brief review of some related studies conducted on lexical collocations is presented. Mahmoud (2005) in his article “Collocation Errors Made by Arab Learners of English, provides empirical data verifying the belief that collocations constitute an area of difficultly in learning English as a foreign language. Errors indicate that EFL students depend on interlingual and interlingual strategies to facilitate learning. Such strategies help in case of perceived linguistic similarities, and lead to problems in case of differences. Most of the incorrect lexical collocations found in his study were due to interlingual transfer from Arabic.

A total of 420 collocations were found in 42 essays written by Arabic- speaking university students majoring in English. About two thirds of these collocations (64%) were incorrect and 80% of these were lexical collocations as opposed to grammatical ones. Sixty one percent of the incorrect combinations could be due to  negative  transfer from Arabic. The fact that post-intermediate and advanced students of EFL have a relatively large stock of vocabulary might have motivated interlingual transfer in the belief that it would be easy to find the EFL equivalents of the Arabic lexical items.

His findings suggest the necessity of direct teaching of collocations, inclusion of bilingual glossaries in EFL course books, and designing bilingual collocation dictionaries. The result shows that most of the collocations produced by the 42 students were lexical (336 to 80%) and most of the grammatical and lexical collocations detected were incorrect 269 (64%). The incorrect grammatical collocations amounted to 45 (10.71%) and the incorrect lexical ones were 224 (53.33%). The students produced 151 (36%) correct collocations, 39 (9.28%) of which were grammatical and 112 (26.67%) were lexical.

Rahimi (2005) examines the role of systematic exposure to lexical collocations in learning English vocabulary by Iranian students. A sample of 60 Iranian EFL learners in level 6 at Mehr Language Institute in Marvdasht served as participants. They were divided into two groups, that is, experimental and control. The control group received the meaning of the new vocabulary items in their course book by the teacher, while the same items were used in at least two collocational contexts for the experimental group. A multiple-choice test of vocabulary consisting of 50 items was used as pre-test and post-test. The collected data were examined and the results showed that:

A systematic teaching of lexical collocations effects vocabulary learning by Iranian EFL learners positively.

Morshali (1995) research is an investigation into whether collocations should be explicitly taught to Iranian EFL learners. A sample population of two hundred adult male (No. =92) and female (No. =108) Iranian EFL learners, intermediate and advanced at the Iran Language Institute, served as the subjects of the study. A multiple choice test of collocations including forty items was administered to the subject to assess their productive knowledge of English collocations, to probe the effect of proficiency level on collocation use, and, finally, to examine whether formal instruction plays any role in the mastery of collocations. The analysis of the data revealed that:

1.  The Iranian EFL learner’s  knowledge of collocation lagged behind their knowledge of vocabulary;

2. There exists no   significant relationship between the level of language proficiency and that of the knowledge of English collocations;

3. The Iranian learners do not generally acquire collocations without formal teaching; and finally;

4. The number of collocational errors committed by the Iranian  EFL   learners   underlines   the  need  for  formal teaching of collocations.

Tajalli (1994) in his article “Translatability of English and Persian Collocation”, comparing English-Persian collocations states that “among those with direct translational equivalence, there are both easy and hard items. Similarly, among collocations with no direct translational equivalence, there are items with high percentage of errors, while some others present no problem at all.”

A sample experiment was carried out at Shiraz University to explore the nature and extent of the problem as well as to determine translatability of the test items. The findings of Tajalli (1994) were summarized as follows:

First and foremost, it was revealed that the prime source of difficulty was unfamiliarity of the subjects with English collocations due to insufficient exposure.

Second, the examination of data showed that, contrary to expectations, the non-congruent grammatical structures of English and Persian collocations could hardly be held responsible for possible constraints. For example, if a collocation in Persian uses present tense, but its English equivalent is said in the past, the apparent time incongruence is not responsible for the use of the probable non-collocational phrase.

Third, it was discovered that a good number of problematic cases could be accounted for in terms of the use of the primary sense of constituent rather than its secondary sense. In other words, some problems may be attributed to the inadequate knowledge of the full semantic potential of simple lexical items when combined to form collocations; in short, inability to devise collocational meanings of words.

Fourth, the experiment revealed that presence or absence of direct translational equivalence significantly affects translatability.

Finally, it was detected that some problems were ascribable to lack of adequate familiarity with Persian collocations.

Faghih and Sharafi (2006) in their study “The Impact of Collocations on Iranian EFL Learners Interlanguage”, compared various categories of collocations based on their difficulty. Over one hundred EFL students participated in the study. The students were selected from both male and female juniors and seniors studying English at: Alzahra University and   The Islamic Azad University of Torbat-Heydarieh. The Michigan Proficiency test was first administered to determine the subjects, level of proficiency. Then an elicitation test on collocations was administered. This test included five categories of collocations as follows:

1. Verb + Noun                                       15 Items

2. Adjective + Noun                                15 items

3. Count Noun + of + Mass Noun         10 items

4. Collective Noun + Count Noun          10 items

5. Subject + verb                                  10 items

In all categories, the learners were required to select the correct response from among four given alternatives. The results of the study indicate that confusion of collocations is indeed evident in the performance of language learners and that the task of correctly identifying lexical collocations, as admitted by many researchers seems to be very difficult. The study also indicated and substantiated a positive correlation between the learners’ overall proficiency in English and their knowledge of collocations. Finally, the confusion of collocations as evidenced by the results of the study lends support to the contrastive analysis and interlanguage studies. The first language effect is reflected in the results of the learner’s performance.

Hassan Abadi (2003) in his study “A Study of the Acquisition of English Lexico- Grammatical Collocations by Iranian EFL learners”, investigated the processes of acquisition of different collocations by EFL learners. In the study, a sample of 80 Iranian EFL learners at Shiraz University served as participants. A test of collocation consisting of forty multiple-choice items was administered to the participants to determine which types of collocations, lexical or grammatical, and which subparts in each type where more problematic for Iranian EFL learners.

His study also examined if there was any significant difference between the performance of the learners on different categories of lexical and grammatical collocations. Hassan-Abadi (2000) came to some conclusions as follows:

1. Lexical collocations are easier to acquire than grammatical collocations

2. There is statistically significant difference between the performances of the participants on different sub-categories of lexical collocations. This difference is slightly in favor of Verb +Noun collocations.

3. Among different subcategories of grammatical collocations which were under the focus of attention in his study, Participle Adjective Preposition is the easiest to acquire and Preposition Noun is the most difficult one.

4. The degree of L1-L2 difference or similarity influences the acquisition of certain types of collocations.

5. Exposure or lack of exposure to a certain type of collocation influences the acquisition of that kind of collocations.

6. Those collocations, which are more frequent in everyday speech, are easier to acquire than others.


Sample of the study

Thirty male and female M.A. university  students majoring in English Language Teaching at Shiraz Islamic Azad University participated in this study. So, they had already attended a number of compulsory subjects devoted to improving their general English proficiency. Candidate’s age ranged from 23 to 30 and there were 14 women and 16 men. There was no bias toward lexical collocations in the teaching of the English courses and the students were given no indications that attention would be on lexical collocations. Students produced writings of a narrative and explanation type while lexical collocations were a significant language feature of their writings. It should be noted that the approximate word length was varied. 


Over 100 pages of written materials produced by MA students of TEFL at Islamic Azad University of Shiraz were collected. The materials were free writings on different social issues such as customs, traditions, daily life, etc. They were descriptive and explanatory texts and ranged from one to two single spaced pages in length. The corpus was then studied carefully, and instances of the lexical collocations were identified. The correct and incorrect lexical collocations were listed (Appendixes A and B). Then the types of lexical collocations were determined according to Benson  (1997) classification as follows:

1. Verb + Noun → for example, to take a drug, to reduce a fever, to control appetite, to break the promise, to initiate a course, to stifle a yawn

2. Verb + Adverb → for example, change considerably, teach effectively, try hard, fly around, sit back, act dishonestly

3. Noun + verb → for example, the evidence shows, the result shows, time passed, findings indicate, tooth decays, lions growl

4. Adjective + Noun → for example, abject poverty, rancid butter, old way, mass media, side effect

5. Adverb + Adjective → for example, sexually attractive, greatly honored, closely related, quite friendly, highly contagious

6. Noun + of + Noun → for example, a bar of soap, a slice of beef, the chief of the police, block of butter, stomach of the shark

Here are some examples of the misuse of different types of lexical collocations.

1. Verb +Noun® for example, ‘*make a visit’ instead of ‘pay a visit’ ‘*accept a child’ instead of ‘adopt a child’

2. Verb +Adverb® for example, ‘*realize completely instead of ‘realize fully’ / *speak positively instead of ‘speak encouragingly’

3. Noun +Verb® for example, ‘*thought provoke’ instead of ‘thought Express’

4. Adjective +Noun® for example, *some soured butter instead of some rancid butter / *oily food instead of rich food

5. Adverb + Adjective® for example, *perfectly great instead of absolutely great / *completely friendly instead of quite friendly

6. Noun1+of+Noun2® for example, *a group of fish instead of ‘a school of fish’

It is worth mentioning that the essays, term papers, and compositions examined in this study were written as part of participants’ writing activities, thus the language they produced was linguistically natural. 

Data collection

might have underused or overused such word combinations. To collect the data, fifty different essays were selected from 100 pages of written materials, term papers, and compositions on different social issues were examined that contained more lexical collocations (Appendixes A&B). The instances of correct and incorrect lexical collocations were identified.

Data analysis

This study was undertaken to find out the nature of the lexical collocational errors committed by advanced Iranian EFL students. After the essays were collected they were studied and examined carefully, and a total of 332 instances of lexical collocations were detected, these were listed and categorized according to Benson’s (1997) classification of lexical collocations as presented in Table 1. The frequency, percentage, and chi-square were used in the analysis of data. 



Then the Oxford Collocations Dictionary (2009), and Benson et al. (1997) BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations were consulted to check whether the instances of lexical collocations used by students were correct or not (Table 2.)



This research study shows that the misuse of Adjective + Noun type of lexical combinations is very common and the misuse of Noun + of + Noun type of lexical combination is the least common to advanced EFL Iranian students majoring in English in  their  free  writing. For example, some of the correct lexical collocations used by the students were as follows:

Correct lexical collocations:

Adjective + Noun Type

previous generation, effective way, tourism industry

Verb + Noun Type

tell a story, take drug, pay attention

Noun + Verb Type

time passed, finding indicates, draw a line

Noun + of+ Noun

block of butter, stomach of the shark, a length of time

Adverb+ Adjective

quite friendly, absolutely great, relatively mild

Verb + Adverb

change considerably, teach effectively, try hard

Incorrect lexical collocations:

Adjective + Noun

*subjective sensation

*authentic dialogue

*more healthy

Verb + adverb

*speak positively

*realize completely

*work wonderfully

Verb + Noun

*enhance grammar

*feel depression

*break depression

Verb + Noun

*make standing

*accept university

*pass a street

Noun + of + Noun

*part of butter

*the manager of the police

Noun + verb

*weight comes back

*success inspiring

*secret lies

Adjective +Adverb

*so great

*more willing

*completely friendless

In the following part of research study, the Chi-square test was run (χ2 is the Greek symbol used for the test). The χ2 test gives us a way of testing the differences between the obtained and the expected frequencies (Hatch and Farhadi, 1981).

This test was run on Table 2 above and the result is given in Table 3.



Χ2=ε (Observed- Expected) 2 =5.94




Probability level=0.05

According to Hatch and Farhadi (1981), the degree of freedom for Table 3 is 5 (d.f = the number of groups -1). The critical value for χ2 is 11.07 (α= 11.07). Χ 2 is much less than α (that is, 5.95 <11.07), therefore we can say that “there is no significant difference between the participants’ use of different types of correct and incorrect lexical collocations”.

There is no distinction among the students, use of different types of lexical collocations. If they made use of the six different types of lexical collocations correctly, they do so collectively. And, if they made errors on any type of lexical collocations, it was also done collectively.

The Chi-square test was run again to find out whether the difference between the participants, use of correct and incorrect lexical collocations for each of the collocation types in Table: 2 was significant or not. The results show that the difference between the participants, use of correct and incorrect Adverb + Adjective combinations is significant (Tables 4 and 5). 





Probability level =0.05

α = 3.84

According to Hatch and Farhadi (1981) degree of freedom for Table 4 is 1(d.f=1). The critical value for x2 is 3.84 (α =3.84). Because is higher than ;(that is, 6.2 > 3.84),  there  is  significant  difference between  the participants use of correct and incorrect Adverb + Adjective combinations. It can be deduced that the use of Adverb + Adjective combinations is not so problematic for Iranian learners of English.



Collocations are a crucial part of language use and it is collocational proficiency that differentiates native and non-native speakers. The findings of this study show that the Iranian advanced students commit errors when producing collocations in English. Most of the incorrect lexical collocations found in this study were Adjective + Noun combinations. It seems that most of the lexical collocational errors found in this study were transfers from Persian. Further studies can be done in areas such as the role of collocations on the fluency of EFL speakers. A meaningful learning takes place if the learners are completely involved in the process of learning. So the learners should be aware of the importance and usefulness of collocations in second language learning. Teachers can ask the learners to pay more attention to the collocations in their textbooks and underline or take note of the collocations they come across in order to raise their awareness. These kinds of exercises are very useful as the collocations are contextualized, and the learners are involved in the process of learning. Explicit learning of collocations through extensive readings will be more long lasting by asking learners to focus on the collocational structures. Textbooks can include some sample readings containing controlled collocations together with supplementary exercises that reinforce their knowledge of collocations. 


The authors have not declared any conflict of interests.


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