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Elegant English: Pairing up

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Sometimes, when translating or editing, I find myself having to swap a pair of words around the other way. Usually, the original author is happy to simply accept my choice, but occasionally it is questioned. After all, it does seem like a mistake at first glance. The truth is that, in English, there are certain pairs of words, often opposites, that we always put in the same order. This is also the case in many other languages, but the equivalent pairs do not always follow the same pattern across languages. For example, in English, we would almost always say ‘hot and cold’, ‘black and white’, or ‘husband and wife’, whereas ‘cold and hot’, ‘white and black’ and ‘wife and husband’ just feel wrong.

The technical term for words that are generally used together, is ‘collocation’. This is just one of many kinds of collocation which encompasses all sorts of phrases and expressions where a particular pair of words generally go together. For example, a train is usually described as ‘fast’, but never ‘quick’, even though the two adjectives mean the same thing. Meanwhile ‘fast food’ and a ‘quick meal’ have subtly different meanings.

Pairs of words can, of course, be learned from lists, although there are so many of them that the best way to get used to them is simply through practice. The more you hear or see them, the more you begin to develop a feel for what is right. If in doubt, check with a native speaker. However, here are a few common ones to get you started:

Black and white
Hot and cold
Bride and groom
Up and down
Read and write
Cup and saucer
Fish and chips
Knife and fork
Ladies and gentlemen
Husband and wife
Salt and pepper
Bread and butter
Life and death
Adam and Eve
Love or hate
Right or wrong
More or less
Advantages and disadvantages
Backwards and forwards
Soap and water

That said, this does not mean that you should never use these words in the opposite order. If you wish to deliberately create a particular effect, such as making a character sound foreign, or placing unusual emphasis, then go ahead and switch them around. Just be aware that it will sound odd to a native ear, and therefore alter the flow of your writing.

Elegant English lettering copy


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