Verb-Object Collocations in Chinese

Both students of Chinese and English alike have probably heard of the term “collocation” (固定搭配), the idea that certain words are more commonly used together than others. What we’re essentially talking about is a relatively “fixed” combination of two or more words.

It does not seem terribly difficult to come up with collocations in English. We say, for example, “eat soup”, not “drink soup” as the Chinese do (喝汤). Likewise, in English we say “make a phone call to sb” or just “call sb”, while Mandarin has the more complicated structure of 给[某人]打电话.

But while there are numerous collocations dictionaries in the English language, I’ve yet to come across any for Chinese. If anyone can suggest any in the comments section I’d be most grateful.

I am also trying to make my own list of collocations in Chinese, along with their English counterparts. The kind of collocations I want to focus on, as a Chinese learner, are the kind you can’t find in dictionaries. I don’t want to talk too much about structures like “一边…一边…”, “不但…而且…”, etc. either; the way I see it, they are more like sentence structures than collocations per se. Anyway, those kind of structures you can find in any decent Chinese textbook. What I want to explore is what common collocations exist in Chinese, specifically verb-object collocations as they are usually the most practical/interesting.

I think this kind of research can benefit learners of any language, since learning how to use collocations correctly is one of the most effective ways to improve your proficiency.

Here’s a short list that I came up with off the top of my head. I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments!

Some Examples of Verb-Object Collocations in Chinese

出国:go abroad
破产:go bankrupt
生气:get angry
铺床:make (one’s) bed
摆桌子:set the table
养成习惯:form a habit
提升士气: boost morale
驱动增长:drive growth
做一个预约:make an appointment
推出一个产品:launch a product
占地方:take up space
达成共识:reach a consensus
摆脱贫困: escape poverty
起草一分协议:draw up an agreement
制定法律:make laws
向[某人]发出传票:issue a summons against sb
轻易下结论:jump to conclusions
培养[某人]的素质: build sb’s character
把A放在首位:make A a priority
把钱放在A:spend money on A
引起注意:attract attention
把A放在心上:take A to heart
释放压力:relieve stress
发表意见:express an opinion
结交新朋友:make  new friends
开阔视野:expand (one’s) horizons
提高意识:raise awareness
犯错误:make a mistake
走到路线:go down a route
克服困难:overcome difficulty
解决问题:solve a problem
提高水平:raise/improve level/standard/proficiency
放[某人]的鸽子:stand somebody up
留下印象:leave an impression
把A包在[某人]身上:leave A to sb
保持联系:keep in touch
给[某人]点儿颜色看看:teach sb a lesson

27 Comments to "Verb-Object Collocations in Chinese"

  1. 16/12/2012 - 1:11 pm | Permalink

    great idea for a post….this is the reason studying sentences is a lot more effective than studying words….there are tons of simple ones. Sometimes it doesn’t follow English comon sense and sometimes there are a few choices with different nuances “ride the bus, take the bus, get on the bus” I wouldnt mind getting a list with all of them….turn on the lights, turn the faucet, open your eyes, cover your face, walk a dog, ride the train, take a leak, get hungry, make a friend, take out a loan, tell a lie, suck on a candy, shut the door, park a car, it can go on forever.

    Also…I haven’t been speaking much English these 5 years but I’m pretty sure that in America we say drink soup.

    • Dienyih (Gilbert) Chen's Gravatar Dienyih (Gilbert) Chen
      19/11/2013 - 4:32 am | Permalink

      English is my second language, but I have been working as an (English) editor for U.S. companies for more than 2o years. I just checked with a few of my coworkers (all native speakers of English), and they all believe they would say “eat” (not “drink”) soup. By the way, I believe you never say “eat” soup in Chinese. However, languages/speeches evolve. One of these days in our global village, we may hear native speakers of English say “drink” soup, and native speakers of Chines say “eat” soup (when, I believe, the traditional Chinese soup gets as thick as the famous New England clam chowder). Ultimately, language reflects culture (and our ways of living).

      Just my two cents of thin linguistic soup.


      Dienyih (Gilbert) Chen

  2. Tara's Gravatar Tara
    16/12/2012 - 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always enjoyed how in Chinese one uses 开 for “turning on” lights and electronics. I had a
    student whose half-siblings grew up in Hong Kong and they were always asking her to
    “open the TV!” when they spoke to her in English versus Chinese.

  3. David Gale's Gravatar David Gale
    16/12/2012 - 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic! These are really practical and helped me alot!

    “再來 + number + msr word + object” is basic but very useful and not always intuitive (e.g. “請再來一碗飯” , “Another bowl of rice, please”)

  4. Gu Jiexin's Gravatar Gu Jiexin
    16/12/2012 - 10:30 pm | Permalink

    my favorite example to illustrate that “collocation is arbitrary” is as follows:
    晒被子: dry the quilt in the sun
    晒太阳: bask in the sun

  5. daofeishi's Gravatar daofeishi
    17/12/2012 - 1:06 pm | Permalink

    A few more:

  6. 17/12/2012 - 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t speak or read Mandarin or live in China. I just hover around the edges. But there has to be something for “practice harmoniousness.”

  7. Valerie's Gravatar Valerie
    19/12/2012 - 12:20 pm | Permalink

    A few more:
    剔牙 : floss one’s teeth/(use a toothpick) to pick one’s teeth
    触犯法律/犯法: break the law
    尝鲜: try new things
    打的(di1): take a taxi
    补充睡眠: to have sufficient sleep
    睁开眼睛: open one’s eyes
    扇[某人]巴掌: to slap sb
    违背良心: to go against one’s conscience
    敞开心扉: to open one’s heart (speak freely)
    打破传统: to break away from tradition
    拍马屁: curry favour with sb

  8. 27/12/2012 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    This is an amazingly apt post and a definite problem for language learners / translators. (Of course, some of the examples in both the post and the comments are more ‘idioms’ than ‘collocations’, e.g., 放sb的鸽子, 拍马屁, but this does not affect the point).

    I emphatically agree that knowing a language is not just a matter of knowing the words,;it’s knowing how they are put together in the most natural way. In English, for instance, it means using expressions like ‘strike a balance’, ‘bridge a gap’, etc., not a literal translation of the original.

    These collocations are the ones that come out totally wrong in Google Translate. A simple example is ‘build a railway’ or ‘lay a railway’. Google Translate gives 修筑一条铁路 for the first, 奠定了铁路 for the second. In my experience, however, one of the commonest expressions in Chinese sources is neither of the above. Instead, 兴建铁路 appears to be a very general expression in the written language, and perhaps 铺铁路 in the spoken. (Google Translate gives 兴建铁路 as the equivalent for ‘construct a railway’!) Without a good knowledge of such collocations, translation quickly becomes wooden and unnatural.

  9. 27/12/2012 - 9:59 pm | Permalink

    After posting the above I had a look at what is on the Internet, and there are lots of expressions for building railways, as in English, with varying degrees of currency: 建设铁路, 铺设铁路, 兴建铁路, 铺铁路, 修筑铁路, and perhaps more. At any rate, it’s important to know learn (and cultivate knowledge of) the right collocations.

  10. Max's Gravatar Max
    06/01/2013 - 12:52 am | Permalink

    Hi, Carl.
    I think your blog is brilliant! I searched your blog after viewing a video on youtube about you and another Chinese student’s story. I am really appreciate how you analyse the different structure in Chinese and English. I will visit more often to your blog. Fantastic!

  11. Blake Yin's Gravatar Blake Yin
    07/01/2013 - 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Here‘s a hot word on the internet “走你”
    but i don’t know how to say it in English

  12. 08/01/2013 - 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I suggest do not use “sb” in 给sb打个电话 or 放sb的鸽子. Sb is the shorten write for 傻逼 in Chinese. It was widely used in internet in China.

  13. Andy's Gravatar Andy
    02/02/2013 - 11:37 am | Permalink

    Just came accross your blog and saw this post. This is actually my first encounter with the English word ‘collocation’ but I have known about 固定搭配 and how useful and important they are in Chinese learning since I did an immersion program there about five years ago. Regarding your question about chinese collocation dictionaries, I just did a quick google search and came accross an academic paper (Collocation and Trillocation by Shaokang Qin and Hui Wang) which contained the following references:

    Zhang, S., & Lin, X. 1992. Collocation Dictionary of Modern Chinese Lexical Words: Business Publisher, China.

    Mei, J. (Ed.) 1999 Modern Chinese Collocation Dictionary ( ed.). Shanghai: Publishing House of an Unabridged Chinese Dictionary.

    I don’t have access to these books but just thought I would throw this out as a lead for you in case you haven’t seen it before. I suspect they may only be available in China/on Chinese websites if they can be found at all.

  14. Sobria Ebritas's Gravatar Sobria Ebritas
    24/02/2013 - 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for bring up this topic, carlgene.

    I came across your blog after searching for “trillocation”, a term coined by Shaokang Qin and Hui Wang in the academic paper cited by Andy.

    If the definition of the term “collocation” is problematic in languages such as English, Spanish, French, German, etc., I think that in Chinese it is more so. Most Chinese characters combine (collocate?) with others to form polysyllabic words (this kind of combination is the one you most commonly find in the “dictionaries of collocations” for Chinese schoolchildren); the resulting polysyllabic words combine in turn with other monosyllabic or polysyllabic words forming in some cases what can be regarded as “collocations”. So it seems to me that Chinese collocations are to some extent the result of an (ongoing) two-step process.

    I have just ordered the two dictionaries mentioned by Andy:

    《现代汉语搭配词典》Mei, J. (Ed.) 1999 Modern Chinese Collocation Dictionary ( ed.). Shanghai: Publishing House of an Unabridged Chinese Dictionary.

    《现代汉语实词搭配词典》Zhang, S., & Lin, X. 1992. Collocation Dictionary of Modern Chinese Lexical Words: Business Publisher, China.

    A few years ago I bought this one, which as you can see by the title includes the English rendering of the Chinese collocations (no pinyin, though and tiny fonts):

    《汉英搭配词典》A Chinese-English Dictionary of English Collocations

    There are at least two more dictionaries, but I haven´t had to check them out yet:

    《英语联想和搭配词典》 An English Dictionary of Association and Collocation

    《汉英联想搭配词典》 A Chinese-English Dictionary of Association and Collocation

    Thank you again for bringing up this subject, and apologies for my English.

  15. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    08/06/2013 - 11:06 pm | Permalink is an online tool for interactively mining chinese collocation and frequency data. It’s not the same as a book on your shelf, but it is potentially very inclusive!

  16. David Lloyd-Jones's Gravatar David Lloyd-Jones
    10/06/2013 - 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m coming in late on this, so first of all to Zack, way back there: I think soup is a 50-50 proposition, both eaten and drunk.

    On collocations: one bit of good news — and a big fat congratulation to all the programmers and grammarians responsible: CEDICT has been getting really powerful in recent months as it begins to list collocations together, at least as they appear in the MDBG Chinese Reader. Good work, whoever you are!


    • Sobria Ebritas's Gravatar Sobria Ebritas
      24/10/2013 - 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Hi David,
      I wonder whether you could elaborate on how collocations appear in the MDBG Chinese Reader or provide us with a link related to that.
      Thank you

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