Collocation restriction

Today’s Ada@Home cartoon by Rob Harrell exemplifies the restriction of lexical items to specific collocations:

(Hat tip to reader Verdant on my Twitter account.)

From NOAD:

verb stub: [with object] 1 accidentally strike (one’s toe) against something: I stubbed my toe, swore, and tripped. …

Here the collocational restriction of stub is indicated by (one’s toe): stub  is restricted to combining with an object referring to this specific bodypart; it doesn’t combine with just any object, in particular it doesn’t combine with objects in the same semantic domain as toe (*I stubbed my finger / foot).

An entertaining example using the mildly off-color slang noun wazoo, treated in my 9/29/20 posting “wazoo”:

wazoo, on its own, has no parts, so it can’t literally be an idiom. However, it’s restricted in its collocations — [it’s] formally non-compositional

… [Although NOAD glosses wazoo as ‘the anus’,] it’s far from having the full syntax of ass ‘anus, asshole’ [ — this point is then made at some length]

(The Wikipedia entry on collocational restriction doesn’t concern itself with such cases at all, but deals instead with a different phenomenon, lexical items that have specialized semantics in some two-word combinations — for example, the adjective dry having the meaning ‘not sweet’ only in combination with the noun wine.)

2 Responses to “Collocation restriction”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    For some reason when I completely by coincidence banged my knee on a table corner last evening, I thought to myself “Oh, shit, I really barked my knee!” Immediately feeling that there was something off about that remark, I thought about it and it came to me that one can only bark a shin, not a knee. I don’t know why I thought I had barked my knee, but I believe “bark” and “stub” are both collocationally restricted.

    I may be wrong. I don’t have the NOAD, but Merriam-Webster on-line does say, under “bark, verb (2)”:
    “2b : to rub off or abrade the skin of; / ‘barked a shin on the desk’ ”

    In their example they use the shin, but they don’t actually say that it is inapplicable to other body parts. About “stub” they say “to strike (one’s foot or toe) against an object” which makes it seem more restricted in their view to those body parts. So I may be wrong.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I think you’ve stumbled onto a genuine complexity here: there is some variation in the degree of collocational restrictions for some items. In particular, some speakers are willing to extend the core uses to some items in the same semantic field. Meanwhile, dictionaries aren’t entirely dependable here: lexicographers are inclined to overstate the generality of some uses, for fear of missing cases that might be acceptable to some speakers.

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