ESL How to Describe a Person: Describing People The Easy Way

How do you say...

It can be challenging to describe a person in a language that is not your own. Where do you start? What are the most important things to point out? What is correct to say? What should you avoid saying? For answers, read on!

Create A Picture with Words

First, when you describe a person (or a picture of a person) it is a good idea to have a system in mind so that you will be sure to give your listener a clear mental picture of the person. If you jump around from one point to another, it will be hard for your listener to assemble the pieces of the person in his or her mind.

What do you see?

http://everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=270544 Photographer: mforman: everystockphoto.com License Agreement: http://www.sxc.hu/info.phtml?f=help&s=8_2
http://everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=270544 Photographer: mforman: everystockphoto.com License Agreement: http://www.sxc.hu/info.phtml?f=help&s=8_2

Where do you start?

Here is a description of the picture above.
Follow these steps to give a clear mental picture:

1. Start on the outside. Describe the person in general terms.
"This looks like a small, elderly, Asian man. He looks as if he may be rather poor."

2. Start at the top of the person's head and work your way down for a description.
"He is wearing a battered hat, and his eyes look cheerful. He has a big grin!"

3. Tell a little bit about the person's clothing.
"He is wearing an old-looking, dark jacket."

4. Round it off with a general statement.
"He looks like a happy, kind-hearted sort of man."

A great study aid!

This is a nice looking African - American man.

He has short, black hair, sparkling brown eyes and a broad, friendly smile. He is wearing a dark suit and tie. He appears to be fit and trim. He looks like an intelligent, competent man.
He has short, black hair, sparkling brown eyes and a broad, friendly smile. He is wearing a dark suit and tie. He appears to be fit and trim. He looks like an intelligent, competent man.

What are the most important things to point out?

We remember a person's appearance because of the things that stand out, so it is good to describe a person's gender, age, size, race, and positive features to help your listener form a mental picture. This can be a little tricky because you don't want to say anything insulting.

For example, the gentleman in the picture might be offended if I described him as being a "little old Chinese man" rather than a "small, elderly Asian man". Why? Because "little" and "old" are slightly negative when describing people, and because there is no way to tell whether the man is Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc., from the picture.
When you talk about gender, use the terms man or woman for an adult. Use teen or youth with an appropriate personal pronoun for a teenager. Use boy or girl for a child. These are all respectful terms that are unlikely to offend anyone.

Here is a young woman with ...

...VERY curly, dark brown hair. She has big dark eyes, and she looks rather surprised!
...VERY curly, dark brown hair. She has big dark eyes, and she looks rather surprised!

Talk About Hair or Hats...

Be sure to describe the person's hair. Is it short or long? Is it curly, straight, or wavy? What color is it? Be sure to do your homework about hair colors and types of hair so that you can do a good job describing hair.

If you say...

"She has a big pair of round eyes!" Your listener may imagine this!
"She has a big pair of round eyes!" Your listener may imagine this!

"She has a big pair of round eyes!"

In English, when we describe a person's eyes, we don't say the person has "a pair of eyes". That's understood! Nobody wonders how many eyes a person has! We assume each person has a pair!

We just use adjectives (usually positive) to describe the eyes:

She has big, beautiful eyes!...OR...He has dark, intense eyes...OR...Her eyes sparkle with
enthusiasm....

Also, in English we seldom talk about the shape of a person's eyes.When we do, it may mean more than just shape. For example, in English, aperson with "narrow eyes" may be thought of as sneaky or dishonest. A person with "round eyes" may be thought of as surprised.

So it is best just to talk about how a person's eyes twinkle, how beautiful they are and so on. Otherwise, your listener may imagine a very funny person!

This is a charming elderly lady...

She is slim and petite with a pleasant smile and mischievous eyes. She has snowy white hair and is wearing a big red hat and a colorful jacket. She seems to be a lady with a lot of character.
She is slim and petite with a pleasant smile and mischievous eyes. She has snowy white hair and is wearing a big red hat and a colorful jacket. She seems to be a lady with a lot of character.

How Old Is S/He?

When speaking of age, you must also be a bit careful. People don't like to be described as being the wrong age, and sometimes they don't like being described as being the age that they actually are! It is good to choose flattering terms when speaking of age.  Here is a list to help you:


AGES
Baby = Zero - 3
Toddler = 3 - 5
Child = Zero - 12
Teen or Youth = 12 - 19
Young adult = 18 - 27
Adult = 27 - 45
Middle aged = 45 - 60
Mature = 60 - 70 or 75
Elderly = 70 +

Some age groups overlap because both groups could apply to the same person.  Babies and toddlers are also children.  An 18-year-old is a teen and a young adult.  A 70-year-old may be Mature or Elderly.  Be careful when saying someone is "elderly".  Elderly people are usually considered frail and in poor health.  If a person is over 70 but still strong and healthy, it is better to say that person is mature.

Here is a cute, plump little baby!

This looks like a little girl wearing a pink top. She has plump round cheeks, and chubby little hands. She seems to be very interested in her Daddy's bald head!
This looks like a little girl wearing a pink top. She has plump round cheeks, and chubby little hands. She seems to be very interested in her Daddy's bald head!

Size?

It is also important to be diplomatic when you are talking about size! Learning to choose the right terms for size is a matter of fluency. The more you speak English, the more you will know how to choose the right words. Here are a few fairly safe words to use in terms of size:

"Small" is preferable to "Little" except when talking about children and babies. Then you can use "little" or even "tiny". If you are talking about a small, delicate woman or girl, you could use “petite”.
"Full-figured" or "plump" (for women) and "Big" (for men) are preferable to "fat". In fact, you should never say anyone is fat. If a person is of a larger size, it is usually better not to mention it, except when you are taking an exam that tests your ability to describe a person!

For men who are in very good physical condition, you could use "muscular".
For men or women who are in very good physical condition, you can use "slim", "trim" or "fit".

For height, you can always say a person is tall, medium-height/average-height, or short (although some people who are not tall, do not like to be described as short!)

This is a pleasant looking mature Asian man...

He has neatly cut short black hair, a pleasant smile, and friendly eyes. He appears to be quite fit. He is wearing a white traditional Chinese suit. He seems to be a confident man.
He has neatly cut short black hair, a pleasant smile, and friendly eyes. He appears to be quite fit. He is wearing a white traditional Chinese suit. He seems to be a confident man.

S/He is from…

Talking about race and nationality can be very tricky, because it is not always necessary to know what race or nationality a person is. Many people become offended if it seems that you are putting too much importance on their race or nationality. For an oral exam, like the IELTS exam, you should probably describe a person including race (Caucasian, Asian, African, African-American, Hispanic, and so forth). In normal conversation, it is probably best to avoid it unless you are asked.

Describe the person's expression...

Is the person happy, sad, puzzled, surprised, confused? Be sure to study adjectives of expression to be able to accurately say what the person may be feeling!

This is a sullen little boy...

He looks like he is about 8 years old. He has big, dark eyes and a pouting mouth. He is wearing an orange T-shirt. He doesn't look very happy.
He looks like he is about 8 years old. He has big, dark eyes and a pouting mouth. He is wearing an orange T-shirt. He doesn't look very happy.

What to do when you are asked about a person's race or color...

As mentioned above, it is usually polite not to refer to a person by race or color when describing him or her unless you are taking an oral exam. In this case, the examiner may want to determine whether or not you are capable of this sort of description, and you should refer to the person you are describing as illustrated in the photo captions presented here.

Use an adjective to describe something positive about the person followed by his or her race or ethnicity. For example:

"He is a pleasant looking white man."

You can also say, "He is a pleasant looking Caucasian man."

Of course, if the person does not look pleasant, happy or positive, you would choose an appropriate adjective to describe his or her expression and appearance.

Sometimes when you describe a person without mentioning race or ethnicity, the person you are speaking to may ask about it. In this case, you can follow the lead of the person asking the question.

For example, if the person asks: "Is he black or white?" you can say, "He's white." or "He's black."

If the person asks, "Is she African American or Caucasian?" you can say, "She's Caucasian." or "She's African American."

In this way, you can be sure of not offending the person with whom you are speaking by using a descriptive word that person does not like.

Be careful!

Naturally, there are some descriptive terms and phrases that may be insulting. Nonetheless, there are people who use them. If the person you are speaking with uses a term or phrase that you know is insulting, of course, you should not repeat that term or phrase. Instead, you should simply choose a correct, inoffensive term or phrase to provide your answer.

(Added 5/9/2013)

He is a nice looking mature man...

...with piercing blue eyes and a slim, clean-shaven face. He is wearing a crisp white shirt and black jacket. Even though he is bald, he is quite handsome and distinguished.
...with piercing blue eyes and a slim, clean-shaven face. He is wearing a crisp white shirt and black jacket. Even though he is bald, he is quite handsome and distinguished.

His or Her Best Features Are…

When describing a person's features, it is best to describe the most positive features. For example, in my description of the "small, elderly, Asian man", I focused on his cheerful eyes and big grin. It was not necessary to mention that he doesn't seem to have any teeth or that his ears are quite big! These things might be considered insulting; even though, they are true! 

Always focus on the positive features. Look for pretty hair, a beautiful smile, a pleasant expression, and so on. The pictures provide more examples.

Here is a happy, elderly couple...

The woman has short, dark, straight hair a pleasant face. She has a cheerful expression and a happy smile. The man has very short, gray hair cut in a crew-cut style. He is a big man, and he wears glasses. They are both wearing colorful shirts and seem to be enjoying a happy holiday together.

Here is a mature Hispanic woman ...

and a young girl who appears to be her granddaughter. The woman has short, reddish, wavy hair and a friendly smile. She is wearing a white blouse. She is hugging her smiling granddaughter who has long, dark curly hair and is wearing a red T-shirt.
and a young girl who appears to be her granddaughter. The woman has short, reddish, wavy hair and a friendly smile. She is wearing a white blouse. She is hugging her smiling granddaughter who has long, dark curly hair and is wearing a red T-shirt.

How will I Ever Learn!?!

The best way to learn how to describe people is to practice! Look at lots of different pictures of people. Watch lots of movies in English. Live English as much as possible in your everyday life. Understand that the examples I have given are not absolute rules. They are just a starting place. As your vocabulary grows and you become more and more fluent in English, you will make your own word choices and form your own descriptions with greater ease.

Article Contents Copyright: Suzanne Bennett: July 19, 2010

What do you think?

Several people have had good questions about some of the descriptions, and I have added a little more information about describing ethnicity and facial expressions. If you have suggestions for alternate ways to describe the photos presented here, please post your suggestions in comments. You might also provide descriptions of other photos online if you can provide a link. Please remember to keep it positive and polite and to explain your thinking in regards to your method of description and choice of vocabulary! Thanks!

5/9/2013

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Comments 46 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

Interesting advice. For a writer of fiction it would be a good exercise in character creation.

One point I would make is that the word "small" got the BP executive in trouble. He referred in an interview to the "small people" and there was an uproar. If he had said the "little guy" everyone would have been happy. English was not his native tongue.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Good point! However, in that instance, he was talking about a whole group of people, not an individual. That is a different lesson!

If you would like to contribute some of your practice in character building here as examples, it would be fun! :)


jayb23 profile image

jayb23 6 years ago from India

Amazing hub suzanne. You have rightly pointed out minute details and how use of certain words make so much difference. Also a must read article before one is travelling to other parts of the world where language is an issue. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, JayB! :)


nikipa profile image

nikipa 6 years ago from Eastern Europe

l really liked it. Very comprehensive! Keep it up!


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Nikipa! :)


BkCreative profile image

BkCreative 6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

What a great informative hub and something to be aware of because words are so different from culture to culture even if they are the same words. Old is such a compliment all over Africa and Asia but not in America - even though I am so happy to be called an old lady. Sigh.

I enjoyed this. Thank you!


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, BK! :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!


Maryanne Maguire profile image

Maryanne Maguire 6 years ago from Santa Monica, CA

My hubby's good friend teaches ESL classes, and finds them very rewarding. Nice Hub!


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Maryanne! :)


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

Very intriguing - I went back a few times and it quite amazing how cultures difference but even the same language and similar cultures. For example English, Irish, American, Australian. A great tool.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Billy! :)


B Stucki profile image

B Stucki 6 years ago

Awesome hub! I have never even considered these things. I need to pay more attention to detail. Thanks for the help!


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks! I'm glad I could help! :)


aa 6 years ago

wow nice info


earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 6 years ago from Melbourne Australia

Having taught English to both my adopted son and his mom, I think you have made some useful contributions here for ESL students.

You are correct about it taking practice too.

Good hub, I voted it up.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you, Earnest! :)


AKH profile image

AKH 6 years ago from Rhode Island

Very interesting. There are many ways by which we describe people. It is ultimately a matter of perception.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Well, actually, it is initially a matter of perception. First, you THINK, then you put it into words. That is a matter of organization, grammar and vocabulary! :)


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

Thank you for sharing this hub, very interesting!! I have only just com e across you on here and i am now looking forward to readin g more of your work.

Take care justmesuzanne.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas Author

Many thanks! :)


6hotfingers3 profile image

6hotfingers3 5 years ago

Great hub! I've learned the importance of properly describing people with respect to their person. Thank you!


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 5 years ago from Texas Author

My pleasure! I'm glad I could help you! :)


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago

Great tips, not just for crossing the language barrier, but for us all to stop to take a real moment to look at what we see. It's a wonderful way to appreciate the things that go on around us. Thanks for a wonderful hub.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 5 years ago from Texas Author

I'm glad you liked it! :)


StephenSMcmillan profile image

StephenSMcmillan 5 years ago

Very interesting. Brilliant Hub.


ARAB 5 years ago

nICE.. tHANKYOU


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 5 years ago from Texas Author

My pleasure! :)


Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 5 years ago from Minnesota

Really enjoyed this hub and it can help any one of us.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 5 years ago from Texas Author

Glad you liked it! :)


Maggie.L profile image

Maggie.L 5 years ago from UK

A very useful hub for those learning English. I love all of the colourful pictures and descriptions. Voted up, useful and interesting.


Rosa 5 years ago

Great hub!!very useful!!Thank you~


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 5 years ago from Texas Author

I'm glad you liked it, Rosa! :)


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Very interesting and helpful and English is my first language! In school I was never any good at writing stories because I didn't know how to describe things, much less people. Your step by step guidance and suggestions would have certainly helped me then. Your provide a framework to build upon for those of us who struggle with description. Thanks for a helpful Hub. And the photos helped immensely in illustrating your points.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 5 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you! I'm glad it was helpful to you! :)


beijing driver profile image

beijing driver 4 years ago from Beijing, China

It is a very useful article for me , I would like to learn English from you , I am from Beijing , and I would like to learn how to describe my city and the Great Wall of China .

Please give me some advise on my website : http://www.bestbeijingtours.com

Thanks a lot


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 4 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks! :)


flamingo89 4 years ago

This provides a great vocabulary for English learners, and I plan to use it with my students. The only thing it seems to lack is a vocabulary for describing a Caucasian person. I see African, Hispanic, Asian, but everyone else is just "man" or "woman." All of my students are non-white, and I doubt that their default mental image of someone is of a white person. It might not hurt to include such a vocabulary in the article, so that they know how to describe white people in a non-offensive way as well.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 4 years ago from Texas Author

Good point! I will update and SEO optimize shortly and will definitely add that in! Many thanks! :)


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Suzanne,

This is an interesting exercise in describing the appearance of people with words. I wonder.....if you did not know that President Obama was an African American, how would you describe him as to race? The "American" part is certainly not visible other than a portion of the flag showing behind him. But he could have just been attending a function in America where the flag was displayed. That Asian man and all of your other examples could be Americans or from a number of other countries. Other than trying to describe an American, your descriptions are most interesting and it will make me think. Up, useful and interesting votes.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Part of the purpose of this HUB is to provide appropriate vocabulary. In working with Chinese ESL students, I have found that they often struggle to find ways of politely describing people. This is not because they are impolite, but because they lack vocabulary, and they are not able to discern between slang and appropriate terms until they are taught.

People in China (to whom this HUB is mostly directed) are all very aware of our president's identity. He is very popular there. Most people around the world know who he is. He is appropriately described as an African American, especially in the context that most of my students would need: polite conversation, formal papers, etc.

Another problem I often run across with Chinese students is that they seem to focus on aspects of a person's appearance that native English speakers do not. For example, when describing the Chinese man in the first picture, they would tend to describe the shape of his eyes and his nose first before describing the rest of him. These are apparently very important points in Chinese culture, but they are not among most native English speakers.

I specifically chose a Chinese man for an example because my students very often describe their Chinese friends and relatives in ways that are confusing and odd-seeming to an American. To sound more native, it is important to organize one's thoughts in a "native" sort of way.

Thanks for commenting and voting.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

I did not realize that you teach ESL to primarily Chinese students. Am sure that you have interesting stories to tell.


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks! I did add a section to the article to address your concerns and those of the commenter who felt I did not cover how to describe a white or Caucasian person adequately. Also, I added a section at the end soliciting input and alternate descriptions from readers. Please feel free to add your your description of any of the pictures above (or others online if you can include a link). Thanks! :)


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 3 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks! I created that chart because my Chinese students tend to exaggerate a person's age. They believe this indicates respect, but in American society, people become offended when you overestimate their age. :)


Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis Rix 3 months ago from UK

Interesting hub . I agree with earlier comments that for a writer some of your suggestions may be useful for character creation :)


justmesuzanne profile image

justmesuzanne 2 months ago from Texas Author

Thanks! :)

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