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I'm doing an exercise from an ESL book where I need to choose the correct collocation. Here's the bit I'm confused about:

Since I decided to become an architect, I've put a lot of effort into following my dreams. I've had to overcome a lot of setbacks along the way to gain expertise in my field. If I'm going to reach / achieve my aims, I will have to seize every opportunity that comes up.

The answer key says that I have to choose "achieve", "to achieve my aims". That's OK to me, but at the same time I don't understand why we can't choose "reach" here as well, especially since "to reach a goal" sounds like a regular collocation and "goal" and "aim" are synonyms. So here are my questions:

  1. Can we also choose "reach" here?
  2. If yes, do both versions of the sentence sound equally natural?
  3. If no, is there an explanation why we can't choose "reach" in this case?
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  • reach my goals, achieve my goals, with the aim of reaching my goals, with the aim of achieving my goals... Jan 19, 2020 at 12:29

1 Answer 1

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Collocations, and in the limiting cases fixed expressions/idioms, are to a greater or lesser degree non-patterning. Synonyms are only interchangeable over certain areas of usage [a].

You can have strong tea and a powerful computer, but 'powerful tea' and a 'strong computer' would in most circumstances sound so unusual as to be unacceptable. [b]

You can kick the bucket (metaphorical usage) (hopefully later rather than sooner), but not 'kick the pail' in an attempted variation on the metaphor.

Here, the answer to (2) is definitely not, so much so that the answer to (1) should probably be accepted to be 'no'. The answer to (3) almost certainly can't go beyond the usual 'that's the way the language has developed at this point; we end up with a seemingly illogical constraint'.

..............

[a] This is bound up in the definitions of idioms, but a fine treatment of allowed variability in fixed expressions is contained in Fixed Expressions and Idioms... Rosamund Moon.

[b] Collocation (the measure of for a given string) may be investigated by looking up candidates in a collocations dictionary or carrying out an ngram search. However, it can be difficult to 'rule out' as unnatural-sounding apparently valid candidates. After all, it's hardly ungrammatical to construct something like 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously', and something like 'powerful tea' looks far more sensible. Indeed, one would find "Mrs McGrath certainly makes powerful tea" colloquial rather than unidiomatic. But "I prefer powerful tea" is unidiomatic, and "I like my tea powerful" frightful.

Here are Google 3-grams for 'reached his goal' and 'achieved his goal'. They strongly suggest that the two expressions are roughly equally favoured.

But with Google 3-grams for 'reached his aims' and 'achieved his aims', the former flatlines. (If you choose 'reach his aim' and 'achieve his aim', the contrast is admittedly not quite as marked.)

Often, one needs an ear for these things. And it's not unknown for opinions as to acceptability to differ with certain expressions.

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