What does she / he look like?

    Recently, I was doing a bit of internet surfing and I came across a website about an American science fiction TV series called Stargate SG-1. The website contained short simple descriptions of the main characters in the series. Here they are:

    • Laurel Thomas is a tall woman in her early 30s with a light build, chin-length light brown hair, and hazel eyes.

    • Greg Behrens is a tall, solidly built man in his early 30s with sandy hair and blue eyes.

    • Kitri Samira is a woman of average height and medium build, with long wavy dark-brown hair and large dark eyes. She is about fifty, but those unaware of her background estimate her to be no older than her late twenties.

    • Joseph Gallegos is a Mexican-American man in his mid-20s, of average height and build, with black hair and brown eyes.

    • Frances Sullivan is a petite, small faced woman in her late 20s, with shoulder-length brown hair and gray eyes.

    • Troy Stanton is an African-American man in his late 20s, of average height and build, with very close-cropped black hair and brown eyes.

    Now, let's have a look at those descriptions and see how many phrases we can find relating to (1) hair, (2) age, (3) height and build.

    Here's my list:

    • chin-length light brown hair 
    • shoulder length brown hair
    • long wavy brown
    • very close-cropped black hair 
    • sandy hair
    • in his / her early 30s (thirties) 
    • in his / her mid-20s (twenties)
    • in his / her late 20s
    • a tall woman
    • with a light build
    • a solidly built man
    • of average height and medium build
    • a petite woman


    • close-cropped hair: extremely short hair, like the style favored by a lot of Japanese high school baseball players.

    • in her early 30s: We can say She's in her 30s for a person aged between 30 and 39, but we can make it more exact by using early, mid-, late.
      For teenagers (13 to 19 year-olds) we can use the same pattern: in her early teens, in her mid-teens, in her late teens or we can simply say: She's about 15.

    • When we talk about height, we can use the adjectives tall or short, but we say of average height. Notice also two ways of describing build: a solidly built man, a man of medium build. Please take careful note of the structure here: built and tall are adjectives, and build and height are nouns.

    • Finally. Some expressions tend to be gender specific. Young women and girls can be described as petite, but a man wouldn't be described in this way.

Further Points

    Two verbs which often appear in descriptions are be and have. I've sometimes noticed that students confuse these, so here are some general rules:

    1. BE: We generally use be when we talk about height and build or age:

      • She's quite tall.
      • He's of medium height and build.
      • He's very well-built.
      • He's in his early 50s.

      We also use be with bald (͂):

      • My grandfather has been bald since he was 40.
      • He's middle-aged and balding (starting to go bald).

    2. HAVE:We generally use have when we talk about hair and parts of the body:

      • He has a beard and a moustache.
      • She has long curly hair.
      • My uncle has large beefy hands.
      • He has broad shoulders.
      • She has long nails.

    3. With can also be used when we talk about hair and body parts:

      • a man with a beard and moustache.
      • a woman with long curly hair.
      • My uncle's the man over there with the large beefy hands.

    4. Some body parts can be turned into adjectival expressions:

      • a broad-shouldered man.
      • a short-haired woman.

How to learn more about describing people

    There are many ways to describe people, so a good idea is to look for texts which contain descriptions. You can make a special "descriptions" page in your notebook, make columns for age, hair, build etc. (like I did above) and collect examples.

    A good place to find examples are the police reports that often appear in English language newspapers or on the Internet. Here's an example I found on the Internet:

      Police describe the suspect as a white male in his early 40s. He is about 5 feet, 6 inches tall with a medium build and has gray or blonde hair that is very short and balding. He was wearing blue jeans and a green, blue and white striped short-sleeve shirt. He was unshaven and has a nervous habit of licking his lips or moving his tongue.
      (From The Willow Glen Resident, September 19, 2001, Willow Glen, California)

    Narrative fiction can also be a good source of descriptive language, although the language is sometimes a little poetic:

      He was almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild - long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of dustbin lids and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins. In his vast, muscular arms he was holding s bundle of blankets.
      (Description of Hagrid from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling)


    There is no special exercise this week, but if you click here, you will find a table of useful words and expressions for describing people.

    Click here if you want to try some of my other one-point lessons.

    © Robert E. Jones, 2003