Driven or bone idle? (Describing people’s characters, Part 1)

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by Kate Woodford

We often describe the characters of people that we know. Sometimes we say something complimentary (= positive) about a person and at other times, we’re more critical (= negative). Very often, we mention a particular aspect of someone’s character, perhaps in relation to something that has happened. As this topic has so much useful vocabulary, this is the first post of a thread on this blog.

This week, we’ll focus on character adjectives and nouns that are often mentioned in a work or study context, but first, we’ll look at phrases that we use to talk about characteristics, (also referred to as traits). Instead of saying that someone is caring / impatient, etc., we sometimes say that someone can be quite caring / impatient, etc.: She can be very sweet and loving. / He can be a bit selfish.

When we’re describing a negative trait, we might say that someone tends to be a bit impatient / stubborn, etc., or that they tend to do something: She tends to be a bit irritable in the morning. / He tends to talk about himself rather a lot. We also say that someone has a tendency to do something: He has a tendency to speak too much. Another way of talking about a negative trait is to say that we find someone rather annoying / rude / difficult to talk to, etc. Personally, I find her a bit unfriendly. 

We also use negative phrases when making critical statements as it sounds slightly softer and kinder. For example, we say that someone isn’t very adventurous / confident, etc. or someone isn’t the most adventurous / confident, etc. of people: She has lots of good qualities, but she isn’t the most patient of people.

Focusing on those work-related adjectives and nouns,  you probably already know the adjective hard-working for someone who works hard. The adjectives conscientious and diligent also mean ‘hard-working’ and suggest that a person takes a lot of care over their work: a conscientious / diligent student. Someone who works too much and hates not working is sometimes called a workaholic: A self-confessed workaholic, Jones can’t remember when he last took a day off.

Meanwhile, in UK English, someone who is lazy can be described as idle or, more emphatically, bone idle: At school, he was fairly bright but bone idle. UK English also has the adjective work-shy: Ryan works hard, unlike his workshy brother.

An ambitious person is determined to achieve a lot: an ambitious young lawyer. Single-minded means ‘determined to achieve a particular thing and giving all your attention to it’: You have to be pretty single-minded if you want to be an actor. The adjective driven is very similar and emphasizes that someone keeps working hard to achieve things: Emily is very driven. Her work definitely comes first.

If you can trust someone to do what they have agreed to do, you can describe them as reliable (the opposite is unreliable.): a reliable plumber. A synonym for ‘reliable’ is trustworthy: She was a highly valued and trustworthy member of staff.

We’ll end this post with a nice compound. Someone who is good at working closely with other people is sometimes described as a team player: He has other skills but he’s not a team player.

The next post in this thread will cover near-synonyms for ‘kind’.

34 thoughts on “Driven or bone idle? (Describing people’s characters, Part 1)

  1. Harjinder Singh

    I am big fan of your blogs. You appears diligent, ambitious, very driven. Believe me that I learnt a lot since the day I started reading your vocab-rich blogs. God keep you healthy and happy always.

  2. Denis

    Nicely written! Here are some more relevant words:
    With regard to busting a gut, I would add industrious (= conscientious) & painstaking (= diligent).
    In terms of being able to count on someone, let me mention the word dependable meaning reliable or trustworthy.
    Finally, an eager beaver is a person who is willing to work very hard, & a self-starter is a person who is able to work effectively without regularly needing to be told what to do.

  3. marisa cassoni

    I am always thankful after reading your posts. It´s because it is deep, and at the same time, simple to understand. This a delicious kind of learning.

  4. Dieter Walz

    This, very clearly, is different in German. We tend to express it
    rather directly, f.e. someone is (!) ugly, kind, someone behaves
    egotistically, someone treated some others very badly, … For that reason
    German (and Germans) quite often appears harsh and unkind to
    non-German natives.

    Kate’s post shows that language is more than using the proper words
    and vocabulary – there is always a (more or less) hidden meaning,
    and there are traditions and habits behind wording not being obvious
    to foreigners.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Dieter, this is very interesting – thanks! So often, when I say or write something negative about someone, I use the softener ‘She can be..’ or ‘He tends to be…’. I’d never even thought about it till I started writing on the subject. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  5. Satyakam P

    It’s really refreshing to go through your well-thought out blog and brush up our love for the language. Keep us endowed, please.

  6. Maryem Salama

    What a coincidence, Kate! I spent a part of the last night thinking of this word: conscientious, which escaped from my mind when I needed to test my competence to speak fluently. Thank you very much, my dear.

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