Chips and fish: word order in English collocations

Matt Norton

Some words in English are like ‘Siamese twins’ in that they tend to be used together. Matt Norton explores the most popular Siamese twins and give some tips on how to teach word order in English collocations.

Word patterns like fish and chips, safe and sound, or Mr and Mrs (called Siamese twins) can be hard for learners to grasp, as they can be quite unpredictable and can vary between languages. Siamese twins are combinations of words linked by and, or, or a preposition. They often seem to be idiomatic, and they are almost always written in a fixed order. In fact, they tend to sound strange if given in the wrong order (e.g. “chips and fish” or “fro and to”).

Siamese twins are usually of the same part of speech category, e.g. two nouns or two verbs. They are also usually in the same domain, e.g. town and country, or have a connection to each other, e.g. signed and sealed. But they can be quite unpredictable, e.g. by and large (meaning “mostly”). Some word pairs can go in either order e.g. day and night, night and day, though in this case the former is more common.

Collecting word pairs

We searched the Internet for hand-compiled lists containing Siamese twins we knew. It is unclear exactly how many word pairs actually exist in English. On the Wikipedia page alone there are about one thousand. However, there are a lot more which can be extracted automatically from a corpus of text. These may not appear obvious to someone compiling a list. The following table lists the most frequent patterns resembling Siamese twins found in the Cambridge Learner Corpus. According to the Corpus, these are the Siamese twins that learners use most often in their exams:

work or school
cruel and unnecessary
positive and negative
kind and helpful
health and safety
black and white
national and international
male and female
manufacturing and agricultural
good and bad
fit and healthy
come and visit
furniture and equipment
time and money
technology and design
health and fitness
come and see
track and field
tennis and basketball

Looking for rules

So, how do we teach these Siamese twins to students? Although the collocations can be hard to predict, there are certain general rules or guidelines which can be used to guess the order of Siamese twins:

1. In logical order. As we might expect, there is a logic to a lot of these collocations. Examples include first and second (and other number sequences), cause and effect, old and new, crime and punishment, (mind your) Ps and Qs.

2. The semantically bigger or better thing comes first: fish and chips, bacon and eggs, meat and vegetables. Examples of the better thing first include: good and bad, highs and lows, dos and don’ts, pros and cons. This pattern can sometimes seem to be the opposite of the first rule, e.g. a higher number is bigger than a smaller one, but this rule is not applied to words which can be put in a logical sequence.

3. Longest last: The longer (or “heavier” to pronounce) word goes last. There are a lot of collocations which seem to obey this rule. Examples include salt and pepper, cloak and dagger, cause and effect, men and women, ladies and gentlemen, cream and sugar. This rule seems to take lower priority than the other rules and often overlaps with them. It may arise from the need to put more complicated words or ideas after simpler ones.

4. Male often goes before female, e.g. men and women, he and she, his and hers, Mr and Mrs, brothers and sisters, Dear Sir or Madam. There are exceptions, e.g. ladies and gentlemen, (which follows the longest last rule) mum and dad and aunt and uncle.

5. Some of the Siamese twins follow rules similar to those of adjective order. E.g. we say tall and thin just like we say “a tall thin man” rather than “thin tall man”.

Word pairs in other languages

It seems that all other languages have patterns like Siamese twins, though sometimes they may not use a joining word, or use a different one, as in some East Asian languages. Some word pairs are the same, e.g. Adam and Eve and Romeo and Juliet, as they translated in the same order. Ladies and gentlemen also appears to in the same order across languages (but please point out if you can find exceptions!)

Do the above rules apply in other languages? The logical order rules will probably work in other languages since things happen in the same order. The bigger/better first rule may apply in other languages, e.g. knife and fork tend to be in that order. The longest last rule also has some equivalents in other languages, e.g. in German nationalen und internationalen. The male and female rules seem to be varied in other languages, as they are in English. One example are German feminine nouns which come first, e.g. Schülerinnen und Schüler (“female and male pupils”). An example of a varied pair: English prefers black and white whereas Spanish and a few others seem to prefer the other order.

Research on errors

We searched for specific Siamese twins in the Cambridge Learner Corpus to find out which ones students find the hardest to use, shown in the table below. These are of varying levels and may be as high as C2. It is important to remember that some of the Siamese twins depend on a larger construction, e.g. to be a matter of life and death, so it may be necessary to teach the full construction as well as the word pair.

bride and groom
by and large
chalk and cheese
clean and tidy
first and foremost
flesh and blood
good and evil
head over heels (fall head over heels in love with)
now and then
knife and fork
life and/or death
near and far
on and off
pros and cons
research and development
sooner or later
supply and demand
to and fro
trial and error
up and down
ups and downs
wait and see

Some high performing pairs are: Mr and Mrs, he or she, name and address and fish and chips, probably because these are frequently used or well-known.

Classroom ideas

We have seen that there are a lot of Siamese twins in English, which seem to favour one order. These can be taken from hand-written lists, but also searched for in a corpus. We can spot patterns in these which are hopefully useful for teaching them. We’ve collected a few exercises for students which are aimed at helping to drill in the collocations, focussing on some of the most troublesome ones for learners.

Download it here > collocation classroom ideas

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