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Macmillan Collocations Dictionary 2010. Oxford: Macmillan.

Reviewer: Dr Elizabeth Hauge

29 June 2011

As the Introduction to this dictionary points out, collocation is as important as grammar in communicating clearly, naturally and fluently in English. Many of our upper intermediate and advanced students working on written assignments, dissertations and doctoral theses strive to eliminate grammatical errors from their work, but they often fail to pay as much attention to ensuring that the vocabulary they use –  and which they have usually chosen very carefully –  collocates with surrounding words to produce the precise meaning which they were hoping to achieve.

It is not easy to decide why this might be so, since, although these students may be unfamiliar, initially, with the English word ‘collocation’, when the concept is explained to them they recognise that it exists in their own language too – in fact they often translate directly to produce what they believe to be appropriate and precise collocations, but these can seem, at best, odd, or worse, confusing, to native-speakers of English. Once students realise that English collocations are likely to be quite different from those in their first language, they recognise the problem and are usually delighted to discover that there are collocations dictionaries which they can use to help them with their writing.

On its back cover, the Macmillan Collocations Dictionary informs prospective users that it provides collocations for ‘over 4,500 carefully-selected key words’ and bases its authority on ‘a 2- billion word corpus of modern English’. Inside, its layout is quite dense, and it uses red for headwords and pink for usage boxes, as does the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners[1]. It also has grey boxes to indicate common ways of using related words, and, occasionally, it uses red to mark the style as informal –  although sometimes words and expressions which would be too informal for use in academic writing go unmarked, e.g., the adjective handy and the expression to come in handy.

The Macmillan Collocations Dictionary does seem to be largely concerned with academic vocabulary; however, some other indications of style would be helpful. For example, students in various disciplines may need to refer to the media for up-to-date information when writing assignments; yet, it is inappropriate for them to use journalese in their own writing. The Macmillan Collocations Dictionary gives no indication that crackdown is a word which is largely to be found in news reports, and, although educated native speakers would readily be able to identify the examples given as being clearly from this source[2], non-native speakers are often less able to do so. A search for crackdown in the British National Corpus also returns a large majority of results which come from news sources, but even students who use the BNC do not always check the sources of the results returned.

The collocations given in the dictionary involve various combinations of classes of words, depending on the class of the head word, e.g., for headwords which are nouns, these would include collocations using adjective + noun, verb + noun (or vice versa), and noun + noun. This is helpful, although some options seem a little strange in the way they are presented, e.g.,

thesis N

v+N write a thesis do, prepare, produce, write, write up The candidate must produce a written thesis of between 4,000 and 5,000 words.

Questions of word count aside, if the intention is that a student could substitute any of the options given for produce in the example, some of the results would be unusual.

More seriously, a highly problematic area for many students is the choice of which preposition to use in any collocation and this is an area which needs some work for the second edition. The Oxford Collocations Dictionary (2nd edn 2009) includes, as part of the information on headwords, helpful guidance on which prepositions commonly occur in collocations which involve the headword, but this is not a feature of the Macmillan Collocations Dictionary as yet in any systematic way.

Students might be able to draw some conclusions from the examples given – and very occasionally a preposition in an example is helpfully placed in bold, but this is not always the case. One headword which is quite rich in this respect, however, is debate: in the adj + N section, there are four instances of ‘debate’ followed by ‘about’ in examples. One such is found in the category which gives three adjectives meaning ‘dealing with a variety of subjects’. The example sentence is: We regard the extension of user choice as part of a wide-ranging debate about how we can modernize public services.

There are also two instances of ‘debate’ followed by ‘on’ under v+N : first in the category ‘influence a debate’ where the example sentence is Scientists have a major role to play in informing the debate on developing and exploiting new technologies; and secondly in the category ‘have a debate’ where the example is He is looking forward to having a wide-ranging debate on the issue. One possibility would be to extend this practice of placing prepositions in examples in bold type, but a separate entry as part of the information on headwords may be more helpful for students.

There is also a grey box at the end of the entry for debate which says ‘You can also say that something is a matter for debate. If something is not certain because it is possible for people to have different opinions about it, you can say that it is open to debate: Whether or not this is poetry is open to debate.

Occasionally also, there may be separate entries for different prepositions which are commonly used with a headword. For example, the entry for committee includes two instances of collocations with prepositions: v + for + N has two verbs and the example: Members were urged to encourage colleagues to stand for the committee; v + on + N has four verbs and the example: They felt they had been serving on the committee too long.

No doubt, a second edition will address a number of points, but the inclusion of prepositions as a separate and systematic part of the information relating to headwords would be very beneficial for students.


[1] Somewhat surprisingly, however, there is no CD-Rom with the Macmillan Collocations Dictionary, as there is with the second edition of the Oxford Collocations Dictionary.

[2] a massive crackdown by the authorities…’; ‘a brutal crackdown…. by the ruling party…’; ‘a new crackdown on anti-social behaviour’; Rail bosses launched a crackdown on fare dodgers’; and, somewhat bizarrely, ‘The major cleaned up the city in a major crackdown on crime’

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