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HomeIELTS SpeakingVocabularyUseful Expressions: Describing People (Part 3)

Useful Expressions: Describing People (Part 3)

Useful Expression for IELTS Speaking is a document that summarizes the most used phrases in the IELTS Speaking section (note that these phrases can only be used in spoken language). 

1.Being Smart, Intelligent, or Wise 

  1. (to be) a bright spark 
    Meaning: someone who is quite smart and learns things quickly and easily (usually used referring to young people) 
    Example: Little Billy is a real bright spark. He got perfect scores in all of his school exams. 
  2. (to have) his | her head screwed on 
    Meaning: someone who is wise, sensible, or has good judgement 
    Example: Ellen is saving half of her pay check each week to buy a house. She really has her head screwed on
  3. (to be) not just a pretty face 
    Meaning: someone who is intelligent or clever, as well as attractive 
    Example: Anna really surprised me with her presentation last night. I guess she’s not just a pretty face after all. 
  4. (to be) on the ball 
    Meaning: someone who is quite attentive, aware of things that are happening around them, and quick to respond to any situation 
    Example: We need to replace some of the staff here, they’re becoming too lazy and inattentive. We need people working here to be on the ball
  5. (to be) quick off the mark 
    Meaning: someone who is quick to react or respond to a situation (similar to quick on the draw
    Example: Did you see how fast Jim acted when he saw the terrible accident. He was very quick off the mark. 
  6. (to be) quick on the draw | trigger 
    Meaning: someone who reacts or responds very quickly to questions or situations 
    Example: The president is quite quick on the draw isn’t he? Did you see how well he responded to all those tricky questions the media were throwing at him. 
  7. (to be) quick on the uptake 
    Meaning: someone who is able to understand something quite quickly and easily 
    Example: Tom didn’t have any trouble understanding everything the lecturer was saying. He’s quite quick on the uptake
  8. (to be) sharp 
    Meaning: someone who is intelligent and also quick thinking 
    Example: My grandma’s quite sharp for a 90-year-old. 
  9. (to be) a smart cookie 
    Meaning: someone who is smart or clever 
    Example: Fran’s such a smart cookie. She managed to figure out how to fix my computer in about 15 minutes. 
  10. (to be) as wise as an owl 
    Meaning: someone who has a lot of wisdom 
    Example: Mark really made some smart decisions in his life. He’s as wise as an owl

2.Being Stupid, Unintelligent, and Crazy 

The following idioms all have a very similar meaning and use; 

  1. (to be) bonkers 
  2. (to be) crackers 
  3. (to be) a loony bin 
  4. (to have) lost his | her marbles 
  5. (to be) not all there 
  6. (to be) a nutcase 
  7. (to be) nuts 
  8. (to be) nutty 
  9. (to be) off his rocker 
  10. (to be) off the wall 
  11. (to be) on another planet 
  12. (to be) out of his mind 
  13. (to have) a screw loose 
  14. (to be) stark raving mad 
  15. (to be) wacko 
    Meaning: Essentially these idioms mean that someone has a mental problem, or is not thinking or acting in a sane way. But they are also commonly used in a sarcastic way when someone does or says something that may seem strange. 
    Example: I can’t believe they made that guy president! The guy’s…(nuts, got a screw loose, stark raving mad, not all there etc.) 
  16. (to be) not the brightest crayon in the box 
    Meaning: someone who is dumb or stupid 
    Example: Tina really is not the brightest crayon in the box, she thought that Tokyo was a country. 
  17. (to be) not the sharpest tool in the shed 
    Meaning: same meaning as not the brightest crayon in the box 
    Example: I had to go to Brett’s house to help him turn on his TV. He’s definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed
  18. (to be) not living in the real world 
    Meaning: someone who has unrealistic ideas about what is happening in their life, or in life in general 
    Example: Mark thinks is going to get a promotion at work next week. I think he’s not living in the real world, his performance at work lately has been terrible! 
  19. (to be) a scatterbrain 
    Meaning: someone who is forgetful, or unable to focus or think clearly 
    Example: Rob’s an absolute scatterbrain. He keeps forgetting to lock the front door at night. 
  20. (to be) spaced out 
    Meaning: someone who is not fully conscious or in touch with reality, dazed or disoriented 
    Example: Sorry, I wasn’t listening. I’m a bit spaced out today. 
  21. (to be) a space cadet 
    Meaning: someone who is spaced out quite often 
    Example: The new employee is a complete space cadet. He doesn’t remember anything I tell him. 
  22. (to be) as thick as a plank | a brick | two bricks 
    Meaning: someone who is stupid 
    Example: That guy is as thick as a brick. This is the third time this week he has walked into the glass door. 


  1. (to be) above the law 
    Meaning: someone who is in a position where normal rules or laws do not apply to them 
    Example: Now that Tom’s a police officer, he thinks he is above the law. But he still must follow the rules like everyone else. 
    I though the new student would be in trouble for yelling at the teacher, but since he is related to the principle, I guess he’s above the law
  2. (to be) behind the times 
    Meaning: someone who has old-fashioned ideas and doesn’t keep up with modern ways of life. 
    Example: Andy still doesn’t have a smartphone. He’s really behind the times
  3. (to be) as bold as brass 
    Meaning: someone who acts boldly, is overly confident and does not care about the consequences of their actions or about what people will think or say. 
    Example: My best friend Thomas is as bold as brass sometimes, he just asks for whatever he wants and doesn’t care what other people will say. 
  4. (to be) a dark horse 
    Meaning: used to describe someone who has a surprising skill or ability that people aren’t aware of. 
    Example: I had no idea Jim could play the guitar so well. He’s a bit of a dark horse sometimes. 
  5. (to be) a daydreamer 
    Meaning: someone who often thinks about being somewhere else or doing something else rather than what they are doing in the present. 
    Example: I was such a daydreamer in school, I was so bored and couldn’t focus on my classes. 
  6. (to be) as hard as nails 
    Meaning: similar to a tough cookie. Someone who is mentally or physically tough, and may show little empathy or emotion. 
    Example: I think he’s such a successful businessman because he’s as hard as nails and doesn’t really care about the consequences of his decisions. 
  7. My father went through a lot of hardship growing up and as a consequence he’s now as hard as nails
  8. (to be) a mover and a shaker 
    Meaning: someone who is quite active, has the power to make decisions, or is influential, in a particular field. 
    Example: My best friend is only 35 years old and is the CEO of a new software company, he’s going to be quite a mover and a shaker in the tech industry. 
  9. (someone’s) name is mud 
    Meaning: someone who has a bad reputation and is disliked by many 
    Example: your name’s going to be mud if people find out about your criminal past 
  10. (to be) the new kid on the block 
    Meaning: a new person in a workplace, school, or other group or organisation 
    Example: Because I was the new kid on the block, I had to make coffee for the boss ever morning at work. 
  11. (to have) a one-track mind 
  12. Meaning: someone who only thinks about one thing or subject 
  13. Example: I can’t get Tim to do any homework after school, the kids got a one track mind. All he wants to do is play his new video game. 
  14. (to be) as quiet as a mouse 
    Meaning: someone who doesn’t speak very often, or speaks at low volume. 
    Example: Jenny’s as quiet as a mouse, she hardly says anything. 
  15. (to be) straight-forward 
    Meaning: someone who is quite direct and honest 
    Example: Jim’s a real straight-forward kind of guy, which sometimes gets him into trouble. He tends to be very honest and just says what he is feeling. Some people don’t appreciate that kind of behaviour. 
  16. (to be) a tough cookie 
    Meaning: a person who is very mentally, emotionally and/or physically strong and determined, and can endure a lot of hardship. 
    Example: My grandpa had to endure a lot of hardship during the war, he really is a tough cookie
  17. (to be) wet behind the ears 
    Meaning: someone who lacks knowledge or experience in a particular situation. 
    Example: The new employee is pretty wet behind the ears, this is his first job so he doesn’t have any experience. 
  18. (to be) young blood 
    Meaning: someone who is new to a group or organisation, with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and new ideas. 
    Example: This company needs some young blood. We need some new employees with fresh, exciting ideas to keep this business alive. 


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