Many students fail exams because they don't know a word and then stop speaking. Here are some tips to show you how to communicate without words.


Think of that horrible moment when you don't know what to say. What do you do?


A huge problem for a lot of students in a speaking exam is when they can't think of a word. Often they say “um”, cough, or simply stop speaking.


The examiner wants to know if you can communicate, and when you stop talking or make another mistake, you prove that you can't communicate. And then you fail the exam.


If you go shopping but don't know the name of something, do you go home without the thing you wanted to buy? If you meet someone and you can't think of a word, do you say goodbye and walk away?


In your own language, if you don't know a word, you probably explain it in a different way--you communicate without words. We need to do the same thing in English.


My Personal Experience


I had this problem in Spain. I was driving my car and one of the tyres had a tiny puncture. It hadn't gone down completely, so I was able to reinflate it at a service station before driving to the tyre repair shop. However, when I tried to explain to the mechanic that I had a flat tyre, in my very bad Spanish, the mechanic was confused at my translation of “flat”.


“It's round,” he replied.



I don't remember what I said, but he didn't understand me and thought I was stupid because I couldn't explain that I had a puncture. Unfortunately, it was only a small puncture and I had to wait half an hour until enough air escaped so that he could see that it had a puncture.


What I should have done was to think of a different way to describe the problem. Perhaps I should have said that I had needed to put more air into the tyre, or thought of a way to describe a sharp object going into the rubber.


What to do when you can't think of a word


In an English speaking exam, or any time you speak to someone, and don't know the word to use, think of a different way to explain.


For example, instead of saying the tyre is flat you could say:


  • “I hear air escaping.”
  • “The tyre has a hole in it.”
  • “It made a loud bang.”
  • “My car suddenly veered to the side of the road.”


We hope that the other person will understand us now and will have a close look at the tyre. It is truly an art to know how to communicate without words.


Use all of the vocabulary you know to explain something, instead of becoming frustrated because you don't remember a word.


Notice that in all of the examples about the tyre you can guess what has happened, and I didn't have to say the words puncture or flat.


How would you describe a flat tyre?



Describing things in English


When we try to describe something, we can use adjectives, adverbs, idioms, similes and metaphors, and synonyms. We can also describe its properties, for example, its size or dimensions, shape, or colour; where it is, its material, how we use it, or what type of thing it is.


Here are two simple examples:


  1. It is a pet and it meows (it is a cat).
  2. It is metal, makes a loud noise, and delivers things (it is a lorry).


(In British English, a lorry is a truck.)


In example (a) the thing can only be a cat because dogs, rabbits, and other pets don't meow. In fact, we only need to say “it meows” and we have described a cat.


In example (b) the thing could be a truck, car, van, tractor, train, ship, ferry, aircraft, or helicopter. It might even be a bus.


So, how can we describe a truck better? The features we described aren't unique to truck so we need to either use more descriptors, or find something unique about a truck that makes it instantly recognisable.


We could say it has a driver and uses the road. That narrows it down because trains, ships, and aircraft don't use roads. But it could still be a truck, van, bus, taxi, tractor, car, or even a motorbike.


What would you say if you wanted to describe a truck and couldn't remember its name?


Tips for Describing Things


Here are some useful ways to describe something:




When we describe the size of something, we can say it is big or small, huge or tiny, wide or narrow. We could also measure its dimensions, a box that is 10cm high by 15cm wide.


If it is easier, we can also use comparatives. The thing is smaller or bigger than another thing. Here are some real examples:


  • As big as six football pitches
  • It is bigger than a car.




When we describe a thing's shape, we could say it is square, round, triangular; and we can also describe its form, such as, long, thin, straight, hollow, etc.




Apart from basic colours like red, green and yellow, remember we can talk about light or dark, shiny or dull, or whether the colour is similar to an object, like flesh-coloured or metallic.


Where is it?


Many of the things we describe have a physical location which can be the easiest feature to describe. Here are a few examples:


  • The biggest city in the USA (New York)
  • Those racks on the roof of the car (a bike carrier)
  • The silver thing in the bathroom that water comes out of (tap)


What is it made of?


There are many materials a thing can be made of, and this can help to identify the object. A tyre is made of rubber and the wheel is made of steel. If we don't remember the word tyre, we can say the rubber wheel and most people will understand us. Other materials that are common are metal, wood, glass, plastic, fabric, leather, ceramic, and brick.


What is it used for?


This can be a quick way to make it clear what the object is, in particular if two things look similar and it is not easy to describe in more detail. An example might be a knife and a spoon – they are about the same size, made of metal, are shiny and found in the kitchen. However, a knife is for cutting food, and a spoon is used to eat more liquid foods.


What type of thing is it?


Things that you need to describe can be an animal, a plant, a man-made object, or something else that exists in the natural world. Just for fun, think of a ghost which seems to be made of nothing, and certainly isn't an animal, plant or man-made thing. In fact, a ghost is made of ectoplasm - if they exist.


Here's a great example if you can't remember the name of something.


A big, black and white animal.


What do you think it could be? Well, depending on where it is, it could be a zebra, a panda bear, or a cow. Where can we find them? A zebra, in the wilds of Africa. A panda bear, in the mountains of China. A cow, on a farm. We could also say a cow is used for giving us milk.


Things to remember about using adjectives


In English, adjectives go before the noun in direct descriptions (e.g. a small, black dog).


Adjectives normally only go after a noun if it is a descriptive phrase or sentence (e.g. Apples are red.)


Adjectives are never plural. “A ten-gallon hat”, where ten-gallon is a compound adjective and does not have an s on the end. “A million-dollar deal.” “A five-year-old boy.”




I hope this article has helped you to be creative and think about the different ways we can describe a thing when we don't remember its name. Even when you forget the name of something, you can communicate without words! Please do let me know if you have any questions in the comments.