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Is there a word or phrase to describe someone who is not formally trained at something — yet he/she is good at it?

The person could be good at drawing/art, or mathematics, or carpentry, or boxing, or a musical instrument, etc.

I thought the word for what I described is "untutored" because according to Collins Dictionary:

untutored, adjective. "If someone is untutored, they have not been formally trained to do something, although they may be quite skilled at it."

One of the two example sentences Collins offered was:

'This untutored mathematician had an obsession with numbers.'

So because of Collins's definition, I took "untutored" as having to do with innate abilities, like a kid who happens to draw so great, or have a knack for a musical instrument — before any formal training.

But the problem is no other dictionary defines "untutored" this way. All the others define it along the lines of "lacking in schooling".

So any help in describing being good at something without being trained in it would be appreciated.

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  • Appreciate all the great responses!! 👍 The adjective 'prodigy' seems to be the optimal answer, and 'innate' second = e.g. Innate ability to play the guitar. 'Inborn' is a close third. Someone suggested 'precocious'. I've thought of that, but I feel that it's too broad a term, whereas 'prodigy' and 'innate' focuse on one particular talent — like drawing. (The up and coming 'wunderkind' is good too.) With 'precocious' I can say (quite factually) that my nephew was quite a PRECOCIOUS child (trust me on that), meaning he was ahead of his time in general. – Pope Nick the Great Mar 1 at 13:06
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    A general problem with most answers is that they either denote a lack of education or suggest a level of natural ability, exclusively. A phrase to clearly denote both is pretty much going to be a composite of each. – The Nate Mar 2 at 21:51

11 Answers 11

43

Often these sorts of people are called "naturals" -- "Wow, your kid is a real natural at basketball! I can't believe he's never had a coach!"

Such people, especially children, may also be called "prodigies", which mildly-suggests that they were pretty good before training, but doesn't rule out training per se. Some English speakers have adopted the German term, wunderkind.

I think you're correct in shunning 'untutored' for this application.

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    The only thing I could add to this would be precociousness and innateness, otherwise it's the best answer here. Feel free to update your answer with it if you like; I won't be adding a new answer to this question. dictionary.com/browse/precociousness ; dictionary.com/browse/innateness – kayleeFrye_onDeck Mar 1 at 5:05
  • Natural Aptitude – Smock Mar 1 at 10:05
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    The only concern I have with using "natural"/"prodigy" is that it doesn't specifically exclude formal training. For example, Einstein could definitely be described as a "natural" in physics and mathematics - but he did also complete formal training to achieve his PhD in 1905. – Bilkokuya Mar 1 at 12:22
  • With regard to sports, I've often heard the terms natural talent or natural ability used when referring to the portion of an athlete's overall talent that existed before they were trained in their sport. – Mike Devenney Mar 1 at 19:42
  • @MikeDevenney I've heard it used irrespective of any training but never exclusive like that. – The Nate Mar 2 at 21:54
10

In some contexts "self-taught" might be appropriate. It does not imply that the person was a natural nor does it indicate they were generally untutored.

From Merriam-Webster

self-taught adjective \ ˈself-ˈtȯt \ Definition of self-taught 1 : having knowledge or skills acquired by one's own efforts without formal instruction a self-taught musician 2 : learned by oneself self-taught knowledge

  • +1 For me this is the closest; as it conveys that they have competency without formal qualifications/training. Importantly, it does not suggest they were just "born with that talent" - it includes people who simply worked hard to develop their skills, despite lacking any "natural gift". – Bilkokuya Mar 1 at 12:17
  • George, the system has flagged your answer as "low-quality because of its length and content." An answer on EL&U is expected to be authoritative, detailed, and explain why it is correct. To avoid its potential deletion, you can edit your answer to provide more information - e.g., add a published definition of self-taught (linked to the source) and say which contexts it suits, and why. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour :-) – Chappo Says Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 2:32
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a natural-born X TFD idiom

Possessing an ability innately. The term is always used as a modifier before a noun.

As in:

My daughter is a natural-born chef.

8

There is this interesting concept called autodidacticism (in plain English, it simply means self-education or self-teaching) which means that you have received no formal education at all, but because of your great yearning for knowledge and your natural talent, you were able to acquire the necessary skill and expertise to become exceptionally good at whatever it is that you're doing. Probably, one of the best examples of autodidacts (a person who practices autodidacticism) was the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan who, although had no formal education in mathematics, managed to become one of the great mathematicians of the early 20th century. Here's what Wikipedia says about this incredible individual:

Though he had almost no formal training in pure mathematics, he made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions, including solutions to mathematical problems considered to be unsolvable.

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    I was going to post an answer of "self-taught" as this answer includes "self-teaching" I won't bother. What I think of note is that most of the other answers answers have the connotation of innate skill or of being gifted while these terms simply state that the person applied effort to learn the skill on their own, although the example provided is of someone who certainly applied great efforts and was supremely gifted. – Quaternion Mar 1 at 1:17
  • That's the thing about autodidacts. They were all gifted individuals. – Michael Rybkin Mar 1 at 1:18
  • Well that is where I disagree. The ones of historical significance very likely. But all kinds of people can become masters of subjects, self actualization is the key from people like Bruce lee who advanced martial arts to people who decided to teach themselves carpentry, music, programming, or photography to a professional level without formal training. There are many normal people who can become great at most any task on their own without the requirement that they be a prodigy. – Quaternion Mar 1 at 1:25
  • Well, the OP's original word was untutored. I think autodidact in meaning comes pretty close to that. It means no formal education and requires at least a moderate degree of talent. Let's leave it at that. – Michael Rybkin Mar 1 at 1:31
8

Someone who was showing expertise for something when they first try it could be said to have a natural aptitude or talent for it.

It's defined as "a natural ability of skill" - https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/aptitude

Faith is an aptitude of the spirit. It is, in fact, a talent: you must be born with it. Anton Chekhov - "On the Road"

  • I'm not sure I'd read "natural aptitude" as meaning they had "great skill" (as per the question). To me it would mean that they picked up the skill easily, whether or not they were tutored in it. – KillingTime Mar 1 at 11:44
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    I think it depends whether you could do the task at all without any formal training. Playing a musical instrument (say) would require lessons and in that case, I’d agree. But you could have a natural aptitude for public speaking and be brilliant at it without any training. – David Fulton Mar 1 at 11:53
  • Updated with quote and links as requested. – David Fulton Mar 2 at 8:12
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I want to suggest "savant" to describe someone with noteworthy abilities that are presented without any "formal" training. The word is sometimes used to describe the highly educated as well, but this would not be the sense here.

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/savant

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savant_syndrome

3

Word or phrase for showing great skill at something WITHOUT formal training in it

phrase (defined by Collins Dictionary):

If you take to something like a duck to water, you discover that you are naturally good at it or that you find it very easy to do.

Defined similarly by Cambridge Dictionary:

to discover when you start to do something for the first time that you have a natural ability to do it:

He took to fatherhood like a duck to water.

Example sentence (from Macmillan Dictionary):

She’d never snowboarded before, but she took to it like a duck to water.

2

I like the natural and natural-born answers for if the person has had no training at all, but I would also suggest autodidact for someone who has trained themselves to a level of great skill without the benefit of formal training by others.

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The first thing that came to my mind as I saw this question is a gift which I am surprised is not offered yet (pun unintended).
Such a person is said to have a gift for (some skill) or be gifted.

ODO:

gift
NOUN

2 A natural ability or talent.

‘As a young boy he showed a remarkable gift for music and his family encouraged this talent.’

gifted
ADJECTIVE

Having exceptional talent or natural ability.

‘It is a chance for the gifted ones to display their natural talents.’

TFD(idioms):

have a gift for (doing) something
Fig. to have a natural talent for doing something.
Sharon has a gift for dealing with animals.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

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Well! It's taken me a little while combing through some dictionaries and thesauruses, I believe "Innate" is the word you are looking for. Innate: adjective: 1.) Existing in an animal or a person from birth; congenital; inborn 2.) Instinctive; Not Learned 3.) (In rationalist Philosophy)(of Ideas) present in the mind before any experience and knowable by pure reason Instinctive; Intuitive; Natural; Prodigy; Constitutional

  • You're mistaken that "innate" by itself describes a person or "someone" as your question asks for. Innate describes a quality of a person. A person can have innate talents, but to say that the person is "innate" or "an innate" makes no sense. Since you are new here, I'll say that you may want to look at the vote counts to get a better idea of the most suitable word that meets your description. It may not always be right, but it usually will put you on the right path. – Canis Lupus Mar 1 at 20:18
  • You should cite the dictionary that you seem to be quoting from. – V2Blast Mar 2 at 21:59
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dilettante

a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.

Not necessarily a synonym for "untrained," but I suspect it might fit your need. There's a difference between a dilettante and a prodigy. A prodigy is a natural, aided by training (in most cases) to become a master. A dilettante is more like the hobbyist who does not receive formal training and yet maintains an interest in their art.

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    Would a dilettante necessarily have "great skill"? The given definition (without real commitment or knowledge) suggests not. – KillingTime Mar 1 at 11:56
  • Hi bobby, welcome to EL&U. Is that your own invented definition, or is it from a dictionary or other source? If you quote someone else's words, it's essential that you acknowledge the source. It's not only polite to give the original author credit, it also avoids the more serious charge of plagiarism. I urge you to edit your post accordingly. – Chappo Says Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 9:06

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