I want to say that someone is quick at thinking on the fly, but need to communicate with non-English speakers. Is there an equivalent non-idiomatic word or phrase?

edit: I want it to imply instantaneous adaptation, "i.e. spur of the moment" but that is idiomatic as well.


10 Answers 10


extemporaneous - Spoken or done without preparation

That's more for the actions a quick/sharp-witted person might carry out.

  • +1 -- meaning is accurate, it's one of those fancy-sounding words though.
    – Jason S
    Mar 15 '13 at 19:31
  • @Jason: The problem is I'm sure we all know people who, in a"crisis resolution" meeting, are quick to start talking about how they see the problem/solution. When actually we're all waiting for the deep thinkers to pitch in later. So often, it's slow and steady wins the race, and still waters run deep. Mar 15 '13 at 20:43
  • Different context -- in this case it happened to be an interview where the interviewee was able to learn areas he had not been previously exposed to.
    – Jason S
    Mar 15 '13 at 20:49
  • @Jason: Maybe they're versatile, adroit, adaptable, resourceful, quick on the uptake. I've certainly been fooled by people who make all the right noises to suggest they're quick to understand a new concept, where someone else keeps asking questions because they "just don't get it". Then it turns out later that the slow one has absorbed all the information, whereas the apparently quick one doesn't really have a clue. Some people are just very good at pretending to understand. Mar 15 '13 at 20:58
  • @Jason: I think that is indeed le mot juste. I usually think of a "bullshtter" as someone who tells you things you *don't know, that later turn out to be rubbish. But it's also probably the best vernacular term for someone who gives a false impression of understanding your every word on some complex subject you're trying to get across to them. Mar 15 '13 at 21:50

You could say that they are good at improvising.

Improvisation is the practice of [...] talking, problem solving, or reacting in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings.

Generally it would be clear from context that the more artistic connotations don't apply.

You could probably also work with the word spontaneous, but I prefer improvising to either that or extemporizing.


impromptu - unprepared, extempore


You can say someone is "quick-witted" or that they are "quick to adapt to change" and have the ability to "learn new things quickly"


While the top level report data is cached, this detailed report was updated in real time -- or -- was updated on the fly.


Use an analogy to build up the meaning:

slow runner does not reach goal quickly slow cooker cooks the meal over a long time period

fast runner reaches goal quickly fast thinker reaches conclusion quickly

so "fast thinker" may be what you want

maybe you also want to work in 'contemporaneous'.

For example: "We were all surprised to notice that President Bush could, in fact, walk and chew gum at the same time. We had thought he would fall over."


Somebody who is 'quick on his feet ' would have the intended meaning of being able to react fast I think.

  • Yah, but it's an idiom. If you say "quick on his feet" that implies a literal meaning of walking or running.
    – Jason S
    Dec 3 '13 at 23:08

Considering the meaning of on-the-fly, done while something or someone is operating or moving:

  • think practically
  • think straight

could be options. Think straight is mostly used in negative context as in

The drugs were affecting her and she could not think straight.

  • Neither of those suggestions seem to come close to the intended meaning.
    – starwed
    Mar 15 '13 at 22:49

How about intuitive:

Using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning


Cunning, or maybe even, Guile.

  • 2
    These suggestions don't seem entirely on point because (1) they bring a lot of baggage (such as sneakiness) with them that isn't directly relevant to quick-wittedness, and (2) they may not even involve being quick-witted in a particular case. Please consider citing dictionary definitions that indicate the terms' applicability to the situation that the poster asks about.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 17 '18 at 21:57

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