Describing a person in English is a common task to talk about.
In the IELTS test, the examiner might ask you to describe a family member or a friend. You might have to describe a colleague or a neighbour.
ESL students seem to get stuck at this fairly simple thing to talk about. So I wanted to create the master plan that you can refer to from top to bottom.
We have a lot of ground to cover so let’s dive in.
DESCRIBE THE BODY
The first thing to talk about is the body of the person. That means you describe two things — the person’s height and their body shape/size.
In English, we have to be careful about how we talk about someone’s body. If we use language that is too direct it can be considered offensive or impolite to some people. It is always a good idea to take care when describing someone’s body shape or size.
When describing someone’s height there are only three ways we can do it.
We can either say a person is tall, medium-height or short.
There are exceptions when someone is very tall so we would say exactly that: very tall. The same if someone is very short — although we have to be careful of saying that to someone’s face. No one wants to be described as very short.
Here we might say one of the following:
He is not very tall
He is a little on the short side
She is not that tall
She is kind of petite
Petite is a French word that means ‘small’. We use this word in English to describe a woman, especially a young woman if she is short and of a small build.
If someone is very tall we might say the following:
He is a giant
He towers over other people
Again be careful when using these terms. We might describe a man as a giant but only in a very friendly, humorous way.
And we should not use these expressions to describe a very tall woman. Often a very tall woman is conscious of being too tall and may not like people to make direct expressions about her height.
So essentially you can say three things to describe someone’s height:
He is tall
She is medium-height/He is average height
He is short
And the exceptions might be:
He is very tall
She is very short
This is where we have to be careful. In some cultures, people are very direct when describing other people’s bodies. Maybe it acceptable to say that someone is fat in some countries but in an English-speaking country, it is not.
Use sensitive and polite terms and you should have no problems.
The first thing we can say is whether a person is big or small. We might say “He is a big guy”. This could mean a man who is tall and very strong. But it could also mean a man that is overweight.
Using the word ‘big’ is a replacement word for ‘fat’ these days. You might describe someone as fat when you are describing him to someone else but you should never say it to their face.
If we describe a woman as big, it usually means she is overweight.
We might describe a man as small. This could mean that he is short but maybe also quite thin.
A small woman may just be short in height.
This is where you have to be very careful when describing someone.
Both the words fat and thin can be seen as being a little insensitive if used in the wrong context. So you need to use these words with great care.
Rather than say he is fat, we can say:
He is a big guy
He is overweight
He is kind of big
If the person is a close friend or family member, we might say:
He is overweight
He needs to lose weight
He is obese
But generally speaking, we should avoid using this word to describe someone.
The same goes for thin. This word can also have a negative meaning. People rarely use it to describe others as it may imply that they are unhealthy.
Instead, we might say:
She is slim
If you do describe someone as thin, it means they are very thin and possibly unhealthy.
You can use the word muscular to describe someone who regularly goes to the gym and has big muscles.
A woman rarely wishes to be referred to as muscular. Unless she also regularly goes to the gym and works out with weights.
John goes to the gym almost every day, so he is very muscular. He looks like an iron man!
A person you describe as athletic is someone who is slim and has very little fat on their body. You could describe someone who goes running as athletic.
Do not use the word strong to describe this kind of person. Fit is more appropriate.
He goes running every day, so he has a very athletic figure. He looks great!
After we talk about someone’s body — and their height and body shape we can then talk about their head and face.
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DESCRIBE HEAD & FACE
In English, we rarely comment on the size of a person’s head. Unless they have a huge or tiny head! Even then we have to be careful as it can be seen to be a negative comment to make.
But if you do say anything about a person’s head it could be the following:
He has a really big head
He has a large head
He has a big head
Her head is kind of small
She has a very small head
Her head is small for her size
Hair can come in many different colours:
Grey or White
Many people from Asia or Africa have black hair. It is very simple to describe.
He has black hair.
But in many other places, people have different coloured hair.
Brown hair is very common.
But we can say the different shades of it:
She has light-brown hair
He has dark-brown hair
Mousy-brown hair is a kind of boring light-brown colour found in Europe or America. Women might describe their own hair colour as being mousy-brown. It is a negative comment but one that is seen as a little joke.
Students often describe this colour as ‘golden’. But we should say blonde.
She has blonde hair.
This is a very rare hair colour, but it does exist.
He has red hair.
Sometimes people might describe someone as a ‘redhead’ — this means someone with red hair.
Do not use the word ‘ginger’ as this is seen as negative.
If someone is old or they are just losing their hair colour, then we can say this:
She has grey hair
His hair is almost white
After we describe someone’s general appearance in terms of their body, we then begin to describe their face.
We usually refer to whether or not someone is attractive.
We can describe a man as handsome or good-looking. A woman we describe as beautiful or good-looking. Sometimes people use the word beautiful to describe a man if he has more feminine features.
He is a really handsome guy. Many girls look at him in the street.
She is so beautiful. People always comment to each other how attractive she is.
They are both very good-looking. They look good together.
Sometimes people are ugly but it is rude to say this to someone’s face.
People might use the following terms instead:
He is not very good-looking
He is not so handsome
He is not blessed with good looks
For someone that is neither good-looking or ugly, we might say ordinary looking.
After you talk generally about someone’s face and comment whether they are beautiful, handsome or pretty we can look at more details about their face. The first thing we usually notice about someone is their eyes. So that might be the next thing you describe.
We can use the following phrases to describe someone’s eyes:
She has beautiful eyes
He has deep-set eyes (this is to describe a person who has eyes that seem to be deeper in their face)
She has big eyes
He has clear eyes
She is doe-eyed (we use this term to describe someone who has big, child-like eyes. Someone who is doe-eyes often has an innocent look about them)
He has heavy eyes
She has lidded eyes (This is for someone who has heavy eyelids, maybe they often look tired)
He has piggy eyes (Be careful when using this term — it means someone had small eyes. It is largely considered an unattractive look)
We can also say beady eyes, boss-eyed, pop-eyed.
Beady-eyed — we use this to talk about someone who has eyes that make someone look untrustworthy!
Boss-eyed — if someone has eyes that look like they are looking at two different things we use this expression. It is a negative term.
Pop-eyed — to describe someone with prominent eyes that appear to be popping out of their head! Nor a positive term.
The colour of the eyes can be blue, green, grey, black, brown or hazel.
After describing someone’s eyes we then might talk about their nose.
Noses can be big, long or small.
She has a long nose
He has a big nose
She has a small nose
Sometimes people have a bump in the middle of their nose. In which case we say: He has a bump in his nose.
Then we can talk about someone’s mouth.
Mouths can be big, sexy, beautiful, small or wide.
We often use the word smile to describe someone’s mouth because we use our mouth to smile.
She has a big beautiful smile
She has a very sexy smile
He has a wide mouth
He has quite a small mouth
We often just describe someone’s teeth as being very white and beautiful.
She has really beautiful white teeth, she must brush them five times a day.
Or if someone has very bad, unattractive teeth.
He has terrible teeth, all discoloured and they look unhealthy. He should go to the dentist.
Ears can be big or small.
He has big ears
He has very small ears
Or the person’s ears might stick out from their head.
He has sticky-out ears
His ears stick out
When talking about the colour of someone’s skin be careful.
People can be the following colours:
The only people we describe as black are people from Africa or African origin — African-American.
He is a black man
She is black
People from Asia, the Middle-East or from Central America we may describe as being brown.
If someone has light-coloured skin, we do not say:
He is very white
He has pale skin
She is very pale-skinned
She has a light complexion
This is more polite.
If someone’s skin has a darker skin colour, we do not say
He is very black
He has dark skin
He is very tanned
He is has a dark complexion
Sometimes a person might have a red-coloured skin. We can say:
He has a ruddy complexion
He is red-faced
We can describe someone’s neck in the following ways:
She has a long neck
He has a short neck
It seems he has no neck at all
He has a very strong, thick neck
The most polite term is to say someone has a long neck. The other terms are considered impolite.
DESCRIBE FACIAL HAIR
You should never say a woman has facial hair! This is very impolite.
But we can say for a man:
He has a beard
He has a moustache
He has a goatee
He has some stubble
If we describe someone’s hands we might say they are either big or small.
He has big hands
She has small hands
But some people’s hands are very gentle and they might have long fingers.
We can say:
She has long elegant fingers
He has an artist’s hands — very soft and gentle
We can describe the skin of someone’s hands
She has soft hands
He has coarse hands like a worker
After you describe someone’s body, their face and maybe their hands then you can talk about their body language and their gestures. Body language is the way a person uses their body when communicating with others.
DESCRIBE BODY LANGUAGE & GESTURES
We can say the kind of body language that the person often uses. Their body language is an extension of their personality.
She always crosses her arms when she is angry with me.
She always greets me with a big smile. She is such a happy person.
He often bites his nails because he is a very nervous person.
James often tilts his head to one side when he is thinking about something or lost in thought.
When she is lost in thought, she always puts her hand to her face.
John is very impatient. He always taps his fingers on the desk if someone is only one minute late.
Mike always seems confused about something, always rubbing his head like he has forgotten something.
Jerry walks around with slouched shoulders — he never stands upright.
On the other hand, Cole walks around like a soldier, back straight and shoulders back. I guess he is a very confident person.
Lucy has quick movements, always moving her hands or head very quickly. She is very nervous, excitable person.
Bill has a very slow way of moving. He never seems worried about anything.
Other Ways to Describe Someone
I have only covered the things you can say to describe someone’s physical appearance — their body, their face and their body language.
But there are many other things you can talk about when describing someone.
Telling stories are also a good way to describe someone – I wrote about that technique here.
And using similarities and differences is another useful method. I wrote about that here.
You can talk about the job they do. This paints a very clear picture of the kind of person they are in the world. For example:
My father is an engineer — we might think your father is a very serious person good at solving problems.
My sister is a teacher — we might regard your sister as a caring person who likes to help others.
If you talk about the interests, the person has in their free time this also gives us a very clear picture of the person.
My brother likes to write stories in his free time — he has a very creative mind.
My friend likes to fix cars at the weekend — he is good with his hands.
You can also describe the clothes the person wears.
But you can describe a person’s unique points. The person might have a birthmark or a tattoo. Or maybe a scar. These can identify the person and are often very special.
This covers most of the things you need to say when talking about someone’s physical appearance.
You should practice these things you can say by describing your parents, your brother or sister, and your friends. Keep describing different people and it will become natural to you.
A good way to start is to write sentences in your notebook. This will help you remember the words and phrases you can use.
And always remember the system when describing someone:
Body and Height
Eyes Nose Mouth
Body Language and Gestures
Follow this general rule and you will be fine!
In the IELTS test it is very common to describe someone so please use this guide to help you.
I would be very glad to hear from you so let me know in the comment below.