Semantics 4 – Context

So far, we’ve mainly been looking at ways in which we can distinguish individual words from each other or describe their salient semantic features. Now, we want to move away from single words a little and look at semantic meaning in context, and in which specific forms, other than the pure compositional meaning of individual elements, we can encounter it.


When semantically related words recurringly co-occur within a certain span (or window) of each other, we say that these words collocate with one another. Examples for this would be:

As you can see from the above examples, collocations are often the first association that springs to mind because they represent the most typical/frequent ‘pairings’. Collocations can also sometimes demonstrate the ‘limits of synonymy’ because they illustrate the fact that not all words in a specific semantic relationship can simply be replaced on the paradigmatic axis. In other words, the collocation in these cases represents a kind of unmarked form, whereas changing any of the items produces an effect of marking, creating an impression of particular emphasis, exaggeration or irony. The *? symbol combination preceding each of the marked forms here indicates that the construction may be doubtful as to its acceptability, following the general rule that a * signals a completely unacceptable construction, a ? a doubtful construction, and a combination of the two a construction that is at best doubtful, but probably has to be deemed unacceptable.

The strength of collocation between individual words can – to some extent – be computed from a text by using statistical measures such as a mutual information score (MI) or a t-Score, etc., although those are not always reliable.


Try to come up with other collocations, starting by testing to see whether parts of the above examples can be replaced by synonyms or antonyms in some or maybe even all cases.


While the meaning of collocations is essentially compositional and transparent, i.e. can be interpreted from the meaning of its parts, in idioms the meaning of a phrase/utterance is usually opaque. Thus, idioms become fixed, usually completely unchangeable, expressions that are only applicable in a particular context, such as in proverbs.

Sometimes idioms may have some ‘universal’ background, e.g. that something is missing/lacking/not working properly, moving in the wrong direction, etc.


Think of some further idioms you may have come across and discuss whether they may have a universal background. Also test to what extent it may be possible to change some parts or think about under which circumstance it may be possible to do so.

Sources & Further Reading:

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: OUP.

Stubbs, M. (1995). Collocations and Semantic Profiles: On the Cause of the Trouble With Quantitative Studies. Functions of Language 2, 1. pp. 23-55.