Using Less Common Collocations

Have you ever caught yourself saying something that immediately stopped you in your mental tracks? One second the words are out, and in the next second you question, “Did I just say that?” The slightly odd phrase gets highlighted by the Grammar Check and Vocabulary Check in your head (we teachers have these automatic functions, you know), and your self-analysis has one aim: to see if you committed some kind of gross error.

Oh my! Is that possible? Could a teacher possibly utter something non-standard? Of course, it’s possible. We’re human and we’re part of the everyday world, so like other speakers of English we can be influenced by patterns we’re exposed to and sometimes we deviate from the norm. I suppose what makes us different from others who use non-standard phrasing is that we are usually more sensitive to the distinction between standard and non-standard English. Furthermore, we must accept the responsibility of keeping our deviations from the norm to a minimum when serving as a model for our students.

In my August 31 recording for the activity Truths, the phrase “last evening” tumbled out of my mouth. In the effort to keep the recording smooth and natural-sounding, I pushed on to the end and then listened to the playback. Hm, I thought. Should I redo that? Isn’t it more common to say “last night” or maybe even “yesterday evening”? I seized the opportunity to have a learning moment and did a bit of research. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English confirms the correctness of last night and  yesterday evening. I also checked the frequency of all these phrases through Phras.In to see if I was out in left field and standing all alone there. English speakers on the Internet have created 122 million hits for “last night”, a bit over 3 million for “yesterday evening”, and only 88,300 hits for “last evening”. Okay, I thought, I said an uncommon phrase, but I clearly didn’t invent it either. For now, I’ve decided to keep “last evening” in the previous post and see if it sparks any kind of comment. So far it hasn’t. (That may change after this post!)

Coincidentally, a student recently asked about a phrase I used in an old video lesson of mine on the present perfect. In my on-camera talk I mentioned that I had already been to the doctor’s two times that year. “Why didn’t you say ‘twice’?” asked the student. “I was taught that only ‘twice’ and ‘once’ are correct. ‘Two times’ and ‘one time’ are incorrect, aren’t they?” This particular question stumped me more than my query about “last evening”. I feel that there are contexts in which either alternative is possible (once/ twice OR one time/ two times) and contexts in which only one is possible. For example, we say “once in a lifetime” and “once bitten, twice shy”.  We cannot substitute “one time” or “two times”. However, in my statement about going to the doctor’s, I’d argue it’s acceptable to say “twice” or “two times”.

Should we teach the hard-and-fast rule that once and twice are preferred to one time and two times in standard English? Is use of one time and two times more typical of informal English? Possibly, but I wouldn’t correct a student for using one time or two times unless the phrases were idiomatic and substitution wasn’t possible. Also, we cannot use once and twice as modifiers as we do in phrases such as “two-time winner” or “one-time password”.

What are your thoughts on using less common collocations?

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Cecilia says:

    Hi, why say ‘two times’ when we can say ‘twice’? Maybe not wrong, but it does sound odd.

    1. I think I’ll create a poll to see if as a group we feel it’s wrong or simply awkward to say “two times”. Thanks for posting your comment!

  2. Ruthie says:

    In my opinion, both are correct. The difference is semantic. “Two times” is usually used to emphasize the concept of something occurring a second time. Frequently, the vocal stress is then placed on the “two.”
    “We were feeling so energetic on our run that we went around the lake TWO times.”

    1. A great insight! Thank you.

  3. Cece Dar says:

    I came to say what Ruthie already said: it’s a question of emphasis (sometimes, at least), and does not need to be heavy emphasis. In certain phrases it would be totally incorrect, but not in your situation

    1. Thank you for backing up Ruthie’s point!

  4. sophie says:

    I often say things and then think oh know why on earth didn’t I think before I put my foot in it. However yesterday evening is not a phrase I generally use, more last night.

    1. Ha ha. Yes, sometimes odd phrases come out before we can self-correct. Thanks for joining the discussion, Sophie.

  5. katie says:

    Recently,I have been going through stuff like this with my son in his homework and he always asks why and questions why we say stuff like two times instead of twice, I don’t think I will ever have the correct answer for him as he always knows best.

    1. Yes, working with young learners presents unique challenges. My son also questions my knowledge and explanations at times.
      I admit that more than once I’ve fallen back on silly retorts, such as “Who’s the parent? Who’s the teacher? Me!” 🙂
      Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Katie.

  6. sophie says:

    Hi I am an Educational Psychologist but did train as an English teacher in the early stages of my career and used to hate it when the children in my class corrected me on something that I had just said slipping up. Great blog.

    1. Thanks for posting your comment, Sophie. Getting corrected as a teacher still embarrasses me at times, but it also reveals to students that everyone makes mistakes. Students from some backgrounds have a hard time accepting that their teacher isn’t perfect. I’m actually relieved when learners finally understand and accept the role I want to have: I’m a facilitator in the learning process. I’m not an English goddess. I’m a guide who may need to readjust the course on occasion, but they can still trust me to lead them.🙂

  7. ava says:

    I have just been reading through your blogs and felt that I had to comment on the fact that kids are quick to pick up on any little mistakes you may make, I have recently been helping my son with his maths homework and he kept correcting me on my maths rather than me helping him with his.

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