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.”
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.'”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Adjectives and nouns for describing intelligent people
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.”
A 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.”
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.”
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)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.