Home / 2006 / February

Linguistic Thoughts: Collocation

Why do “tall” and “order” collocate and “high” and “expectations” collocate? Why doesn’t someone have “tall expectations” or a “high order”? “Tall” carries with it some aspect of being attached to the ground, I think, in a more physical sense. “High” does not. Instead, it seems to be unattached. Let us go one step away from a literal meaning. If you say that someone’s idea is “grounded,” connected to the ground, that is a positive thing, a supportive comment. So if “grounded,” when taken less literally, means that an idea, or goal, is “grounded” (close to “tall”), it is based on some firm principles.

Okay, now “tall order.” If I told you that your plan to attend college is a “tall order,” it would mean that I don’t believe in you, that your plan isn’t grounded. But if I said that you have “high expectations” in wanting to go to college, you would feel encouraged, you would know that I believe in you, and that your desire to go to college is, in my opinion, one based firmly on the fact that you will not be wasting your time, money, or efforts.


So a “grounded” idea is good, but setting a goal that is a “tall order” is not.

My questions is, “What is it about ‘tall’ that it collocates with negative connotations with ‘order,’ and what is it about ‘high’ that it collocates with positively with ‘expectations’? Why not ‘tall expectations’ as expectations that are ‘grounded’, as a semantic feature description of a more literal ‘tall’?”

Okay, so some of my readers may not be familiar with what I am asking. Let me try to clarify. When you know the word “father,” you know a vast amount of information that you are probably unaware of knowing.

Example: (* indicates that an example is not grammatical)
father +male +adult +kin
“Father” can be pluralized (fathers) and possessive (father’s/fathers’), but it cannot be comparative or superlative (*fatherer; *fatherest).
You know that it can do the action (Father fixed the car.), that it can be the “direct object” (Mother slapped Father.) and can be the “indirect object” (I gave the gift to my father.) It can be both agent and patient in either an active or passive sentence (Father opened the door./The door was opened by father. and I yelled at my father./My father was yelled at by me.). You know what words it can often be replaced with (dad, pop, dada) and words that are quite opposite of it (mother, son, daughter). You know it’s relationship to other words (a “father” is the male parent of a child, who could be male or female; only animate objects can have fathers: “boy,” “cow,” and perhaps “idea”, but not “*The pencil’s father is here today.”; “*Did you see the father of the grass?” or “*Who is this cloud’s father?”). You know words that it commonly appears with, and in which order (father and mother, father-figure, absent father, Godfather–but not *Fathergod). And I’m sure that I have duplicated some linguistic principles and omitted other, but I think you get the picture. Every native speaker knows these things about every single word in his or her vocabulary, to some extent.

The semantic feature descriptions are what I mentioned first: “father” is +male (“mother” is -male, or the more feministly minded among us might say “father” is -female and “mother” is +female), +adult, +kin… can you think of any others? What are the semantic feature descriptions of “tall” and “high” that make them collocate in that certain manner mentioned above? Consider “borders” and “boundaries.” We say “South of the Border” to indicate a physical division between two independent nations. But you would not refer to a person crossing “cultural borders.” You would say “cultural boundaries,” because boundaries is -concrete (or +abstract), right? Do you agree with this? (This type of thing can vary among dialects.)

What is the semantic feature that differentiates “tall” and “high”? I have tried to demonstrate that it does not relate to a things relationship to the ground, whether ground is taken literally or figuratively, because this feature description is not consistent among the connotations of the word.