As part of many teacher training courses, teachers and trainers often have to discuss what it means to know a word and how this informs best practice when teaching vocabulary to students. Especially at higher level qualifications, such as the Trinity Diploma TESOL or the Cambridge DELTA, trainees often have a fairly strong awareness of denotation and collocation, but often struggle with connotation and colligation so here is a quick recap of their definitions:

  • Denotation being what the word means, for example, skinny and slim could both mean thin.
  • The connotation of skinny, when compared to slim and thin, is negative. This means that skinny is often used to describe people in a negative manner. Do not confuse this with things like ‘a skinny latte.’
  • Collocation refers to word that commonly appear together or in a certain order, for example, heavy rain, or mom and dad.
  • Colligation refers to the grammatical categories that appear syntactically around a word or how a word is used grammatically. For example, while open and ajar are near synonyms, we could say ‘The door is open’ or ‘The open door…’ We can also say ‘The door is ajar’ but not ‘The ajar door.’ There are certain adjectives that can be both attributive (appear before the noun) and predicative (appear after the noun), but there are some that can only be one of the two. This syntactical and grammatical knowledge is what allows students to use the words and make sense of the structure of the language beyond just grammatical rules, almost like the steel base that makes up the base of a building.

But why do we need to get past our struggle with these terms? And what are the benefits for our teaching? Let me elaborate by using a practical teaching example I gave to some Trinity Diploma trainees the other week.



Recently versus lately?

Before you read any further, think about how you might explain the difference between lately and recently to students at an intermediate or upper intermediate level. As with any good concept checking, it might be good also to refer to an advanced learners’ dictionary, just be sure we are certain of the definitions and parts of speech of the words.

Once you have done that, consider why we can say ‘as recently as’ but not ‘as lately as’ and why we can use either lately or recently in ‘Have I told you recently/lately that I love you?’ but why we would probably prefer lately. Then when we answer, we would rather say ‘You have told me recently.’ than ‘You have told me lately.’.

If you look at the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary online (others are available of course!), recently and lately are both adverbs. The formation of them is different though, as recently is formed with the adjective recent + ly, but while lately is formed with late + ly, it does not relate to the adjective late, which also takes the adverb late. It is much closer related to the phrase 'of late' and this in itself could be confusing for students. Recently is defined as ‘not long ago’ while lately is defined as ‘recently or in the recent past’. It is quite clear how this can be very confusing for students in terms of when to use one or the other, or knowing when either is acceptable. So, as a final challenge, write down a few sentences using lately, and a few sentences using recently. Then, decide in which of these sentences you could use either, and in which of these sentences only one would be possible. Do you notice anything about the grammar?



Is colligation the answer?

When we look at use (refer to the sentences you wrote down), we use recently to refer to any event or events in the near past. ‘I saw him recently’ or ‘I have seen quite a few of my classmates recently.’ We use lately to refer to a recurring event, but often not a singular one. ‘I saw him lately’ is considered inaccurate usage because it refers to a singular event, but ‘I have seen quite a few of my classmates lately’ is fine because it refers to more than one event of seeing a classmate. Recently works in the affirmative, negative and interrogative for singular near past events. ‘I saw him recently’, ‘Have you seen him recently?’ or ‘I haven’t seen him recently’ are all fine. Lately does not always work for near past affirmative, but it could, for example, ‘I have been really busy lately. It does work for negative and interrogative. ‘Have you seen him lately?’ or ‘I haven’t seen him lately.’

If you look at your example sentences, you will notice that lately is used with perfect tenses, especially as we are trying the refer to a recent time without pinpointing the exact time as you would with past simple. Recently can be used with either, so when the sentence is in past simple, recently will always be preferred. This also clarifies why ‘as lately as’ would try to pinpoint a specific time, but as it colligates with perfect tenses, it wouldn’t really work. ‘As recently as’ does work because it can go with the past simple.



Looking forward

It takes some time to get used to clarifying the grammar around words, but students would be much more certain of how to use certain words and phrases if they also understand the grammar around those words, and sometimes that would mean exploring colligation in a bit more detail with. Some questions to ask:

  • Which prepositions go with this word?
  • Which verbs go with the verb? What is the form of the verb (gerund, infinitive, participle)?
  • Are there any determiners (articles, possessives) that commonly appear with this word?

When we support the syntax around the words we are teaching our students, it is much easier to highlight chunks of language that will make them more confident in using new language items, but also ensure that their use is more accurate.

Why not try it with your classes? We’d love to know how you get on in the comments below.