Some strings of words are importantly different from other strings. For example, they might be used way more often than synonymous strings which would seem to be equally good choices.
Wikipedia defines collocation as
a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.
This is a pretty good definition, although "the" and "man" certainly co-occur more often than they would if language were a genuinely chance grabbing of words from a bag. By the above definition, "the man" counts as a collocation. I think this is undesirable.
Despite the imprecision of the definition, we all have an intuitive idea of what a collocation is. It's a common phrase. Some people use set phrase, fixed expression, and even idiom (sense 1.1, here) in this way, meaning "common phrase".
On this understanding, all these terms mean something like "a form of expression that comes more naturally to, or is more popular among, a large subset of speakers than a synonymous expression". On this definition, "tall, dark, and handsome" counts as a collocation/set phrase/fixed expression/idiom.
I am not interested in formulating a precise definition of this concept, nor am I looking for precise criteria to differentiate, say, a collocation from a non-collocation. I am fine stopping at intuition, and boundaries, like peaches, are sometimes fuzzy.
But is there a term for the opposite of a collocation or common phrase? That is, is there a concise or canned way to describe a string like "birds fly overhead", a mere output of the normal combinatorics of language? Is there a word which describes, as @Drew puts it, "common words put together in an ordinary way"?
The reason I ask is because this site sometimes gets questions like
Who coined the phrase "the dog"?
What is the origin of the phrase "fly like a bird"? (cf. here)
What is the first occurrence of the phrase "in the back of the house"?
I always struggle in expressing the idea that these are not set phrases, that they were not "coined", that they were likely invented simultaneously by a hundred people, and re-invented by a billion more.
What would you call such strings?
Compositional doesn't quite work since phrases like "tall, dark, and handsome" are both compositional and set phrases. Plain language doesn't quite work for the same reason, "tall, dark, and handsome" is both plain as well as a set phrase.
I am looking for nouns, adjectives, or whole phrases which can be used to describe such strings, so I am flexible. That said, here are some example sentences:
- "In the back of the house" is not a collocation, it's a ___.
- "In the back of the house" is not a set phrase, it's ___.
- "In the back of the house" is not a common phrase, it's ___.