Intelligent and smart are examples of  boring, overused adjectives that English learners tend to rely on.

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, a more descriptive term is often a better choice.

Here are 20+ idioms, adjectives, and nouns you should know for describing people with impressive mental abilities. Add these terms to your vocabulary and use them as better substitutes for smart and intelligent.

Idioms for describing intelligent people

(as) sharp as a tack

If someone is (as) sharp as a tack, they are extremely intelligent and perceptive.

“Karla’s grandmother is 94 years old and still sharp as a tack.”

“My daughter is sharp as a tack, just like her mother.”

These are tacks, which are quite sharp. (Photo by Paul_Henri from Pixabay)

a smart cookie

A smart cookie is a smart person who makes good decisions.

“Because of her limited English, people don’t initially realize what a smart cookie Maria is.”

“President Trump recently described Kim Jong-un as a ‘pretty smart cookie.'”

This cookie doesn’t look all that smart. (Photo by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay)

street smart

Someone street smart possesses knowledge and intelligence for handling difficult real-life situations. We often use the expression to talk about handling difficult situations in an urban setting.

“Jay Z is a street smart rapper and businessman who is worth nearly a billion dollars.”

“The TV series is about a street smart cop in Baltimore.”

Books won’t teach you everything you need to know. (Photo by moritz320 from Pixabay)

on the ball

Someone on the ball handles things quickly and intelligently. This expression is fairly informal.

“Our manager is really on the ball. I trust her judgement on this.” 

“I think we need a doctor who is on the ball and willing to adapt to new treatments and methods.”

In football, you’re “on the ball” if you’re lined up and ready for the next play. (Photo by Benji Mellish from Pexels)

a walking encyclopedia

A walking encyclopedia is someone who has an incredible amount of knowledge on a variety of subjects.

“You’re a walking encyclopedia. Why don’t you try to get on Jeopardy?”

“After spending most of his twenties and thirties reading books, my brother Ken was a walking encyclopedia.”

Perhaps “walking Wikipedia” would be a more appropriate idiom for this century. (Image by Open Clipart-Vectors from Pixabay)

a whiz kid

A whiz kid is a young person who is incredibly successful, knowledgeable, or skillful at something.

Collocations with whiz kid include financial whiz kid, and computer whiz kid.

“I saw on the news that some ten-year-old whiz kid has created a successful app.”

“Check out this whiz kid who can speak nine languages. It’s astonishing.”

Many popular software programs were created by coding whiz kids. (Image by geralt from Pixabay)

a quick study

If someone is a quick study, it means they are capable of learning something quickly.

“I’ve never used this programming language before, but I’m a quick study and should be able to figure it out.”

“Gloria is an accomplished lawyer and an incredibly quick study.”

With technology progressing as fast as it is, if you aren’t a quick study, you’ll fall behind. (Photo by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

Adjectives and nouns for describing intelligent people

bright (adj.)

Someone bright is intelligent and quick-witted. We often use this word to describe children or young people.

“She’s a bright, ambitious student who will have no problem finding a job.”

“Becky’s students are really bright. They always have intelligent questions for her.”

You can tell this kid is going to be bright. (Photo by fkyj from Pixabay)

brilliant (adj.)

brilliant person has exceptional mental abilities or talents.

“Tesla and Edison were both brilliant inventors.” 

“If it weren’t for a brilliant general, the war might have been lost.”

This guy was absolutely brilliant. (Image by Eduardo807 from Pixabay)

sharp (adj.)

A sharp person comprehends and responds to things quickly.

“You’re a sharp guy. I’m sure you’ll figure out how the program works.” 

“If you want to stay sharp, make sure you never stop learning.”

One way to stay sharp is to never stop learning to do new things. (Photo by stevepb from Pixabay)

clever (adj.)

In American English, a clever person is intelligent in inventive or original ways.
In British English, a clever person is intelligent.

“The writers of this show are very clever. The jokes are always fresh and original.”(American English)

“My oldest daughter is more clever than her little brother.” (British English)

Crows are clever problem solvers and capable of some things that may surprise you. (Photo by 12701 from Pixabay)

astute (adj.)

An astute person can quickly notice and understand things, and use that understanding to their advantage.

“Astute economists anticipate a recession.”

“Astute investors bought Bitcoin in 2009 and 2010.”

Astute investors saw this trend coming and don’t have to work anymore. (Photo by Jason Appleton from Pexels)

perceptive (adj.)

A perceptive person has or shows “an ability to understand or notice something easily or quickly.” (Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary)

“Police detectives need to be extremely perceptive.” 

“Both hosts on the show are perceptive, witty, and entertaining.”

Police officers have to be perceptive. (Photo by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

shrewd (adj.)

A shrewd person is good at understanding things and making decisions.

Some collocations with shrewd include shrewd investor, shrewd businessman, and shrewd politician.

“George Bush’s shrewd advisers helped him win the election.”

“Many shrewd investors are selling their stock. I think it’s a sign that I should sell too.”

Successful politicians need to be shrewd. (Public domain image: Barrack Obama’s official photograph, 2012)

quick-witted (adj.)

A quick-witted person has the ability to understand things quickly.

“She’s a quick-witted comedian known for making jokes about her audience members.”

“Melanie was quick-witted enough to pass all her classes without studying.”

You need to be quick-witted to answer media members’ questions on live television. (Image by mohamed_hassan from Pixabay)

gifted (adj.)

A gifted person is someone born with exceptional natural ability. We often use gifted to talk about someone’s natural mental abilities.

“Katie’s school had a special after-school program for gifted students.”

“Jonathan Safran Foer is a gifted writer who achieved critical acclaim at an early age.”

Miles Davis was an extraordinarily gifted musician. (Image by jokopix from Pixabay)

knowledgeable (adj.)

A knowledgeable person possesses a lot of knowledge.

“Our graduate-level courses are taught by our most experienced and knowledgeable professors.”

“Most people aren’t very knowledgeable about world politics.”

Hopefully the people making important decisions in your company are knowledgeable. (Photo by 089photoshootings from Pixabay)

savvy (adj.)

A savvy person is experienced and knowledgeable.

Collocations with savvy include savvy shopper and savvy investor.

“Savvy shoppers can often find brand-name clothes at huge discounts.”

“If you’re such a savvy investor, why do you need a financial adviser?”

Savvy shoppers can find great deals online. (Image by justyre from Pixabay)

intellectual (adj./n.)

An intellectual person is a smart person who enjoys serious or academic studies. We can also use this term as a noun.

He is an intellectual person with multiple advanced degrees.” (used as an adjective)

“Noam Chomsky is one of the most famous intellectuals of the 20th century.” (used as a noun)

This man looks like he’s an intellectual. (Image by Jo-B from Pixabay)

resourceful (adj.)

A resourceful person is good at dealing with and finding solutions to problems.

“We have a limited budget, but we’re pretty resourceful. We’ll find a way to make it happen.”

“I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m resourceful, self-motivated, and willing to do whatever it takes.” 

People on a budget need to be resourceful. (Photo by luxstorm from Pixabay)

witty (adj.)

A witty person is both clever and funny.

“Good comedy writers should be witty and original.”

“The writers of the TV show Arrested Development are incredibly witty and funny.”

Oscar Wilde was famous for his witty quotes. (Public domain image by Napoleon Sarony in 1882)

genius (n.)

A genius is someone with a remarkable level of intelligence or talent.

“Some people are geniuses in one area of life but struggle in other areas.” 

“Mary Kay Ash was a marketing genius who pioneered the multi-level marketing business model.”

This man is synonymous with genius. (Image by ParentRap from Pixabay)

prodigy (n.)

A prodigy is a young person who is extremely talented or gifted in a certain area.

“Mozart was a musical prodigy who could play the piano at age three.”

“My friend thinks his son is a tennis prodigy. He’s convinced he’s going to be the next Roger Federer.”

Samuel Reshevsky was a child prodigy who beat several chess masters at the age of 8. (Public domain image)

wunderkind (n.)

A wunderkind is someone who achieves great success at a young age, often because of their exceptional intelligence and abilities.

“Mark Zuckerberg was a coding wunderkind who saw an opportunity to do something big.”

“She’s a wunderkind writer who will undoubtedly achieve fame and notoriety.”

This wunderkind is already the CEO of his company. (Photo by Courtany from Pixabay)

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Besides smart and intelligent, there are many other examples of overused adjectives that you don’t want to over-rely on. For more on this topic, check out these articles on synonyms and better ways to say it.

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