The case against collocations, word pairs that stifle creativity

(Chelsea Conrad for NPR)

Here’s a challenge: Assemble a meaningful phrase that returns fewer than 10 Google results.

Here’s one: “scorchingly tasteless,” unknown to Google until The Guardian employed it in this review of The OA. Or “gaspingly superficial,” also from The Guardian (they’re very good at this sort of thing), in a review of I Can See Your Voice. (OK, it has more than 10 results, but they’re all quoting the original.)

Now try “harsh reality” (151 billion results). Or “fearless leader” (a comparatively puny 25 billion).

Non-congratulations! You just used a collocation.

A collocation is a set of words — usually a pair — that “go” together, like “strong coffee” and “weak tea.” They’re too literal to call idioms and too boring to call cliches. They’re shortcuts that leech writing of its power.

Avoiding formula phrases is not just a matter of professional pride. There’s a science angle … which we are about to grossly oversimplify.

Brains try to predict the next word as they read, like autocorrect but less hilarious. The more established a phrase, the faster and more mindlessly your eyes skim over it.

When you read a word pair that defies the brain’s expectations, you get a burst of neural activity a teensy bit longer than what’s sparked by a more established pairing. (Slog through anything about the N400 response if you want the advanced version. Like this, this or this.)

No one’s saying, that we know of, that the N400 response makes your writing measurably more memorable. But using surprising phrases will make your writing more memorable and cause an N400 response. That can’t be a coincidence, right?

Neurolinguists, we await your withering corrections!

If you were unaware of your unrelenting use of collocations, then A. the truth hurts! and B. here are some unsolicited tips for individualizing your word pairings:

Pair concrete with conceptual. If you’re describing an idea or other intangible, grab yourself a grounded, physical term. Pair it with a word of pure thought. You might get “ephemeral spanakopita,” or “soul-annihilating workout.” Writing influencers call this the ladder of abstraction, and they love it.

Think literally. If you yearn to write “strong belief,” ponder what makes something strong, then take it to the next level. How about “gale-force belief” instead?

Don’t make it weird. “Thin tea” or “intense coffee,” or even “anemic tea” or “muscular coffee,” is sensical, especially if you’re roastmaster at an artisanal coffee outlet. “Puissant coffee” is thesaurus abuse. This goes for reengineering immutable terms like “pair of shoes,” too. Twinned foot-coverings? Barf.

Recruit Google. Search results are a decent gauge of collocation-thwarting success. Millions is too many. A hundred thousand isn’t great. Less than a hundred could be bizarre — or brilliant.

Under five? Then this was a puissant post, indeed!

Holly J. Morris is the NPR Training team's Digital Journalism Trainer.