Patterns in English: Everything You Need To Know (Almost)

Patterns in English: Everything You Need To Know (Almost)

Look around you.

Go ahead – just look around you.

What do you see? Can you describe everything you see (in English)?

Whether you’re sitting outside on your terrace, in your kitchen or on the moon, you can probably see at least three different patterns from where you’re sitting.

Patterns are everywhere, but they’re not always that easy to describe.

So let’s figure out how to do that!

Here are 17 different patterns in English.


Narrow diaglonal stripes in pink, purple, blue, green and yellow

What it is:


Lots of lines!

They can be thick, thin, black, white, green or bisque. (Yep, that is a real colour.)

If all the lines are straight and parallel, it’s stripy.

How to use it:

It’s an adjective, so you can use it like any other adjective:

“Excuse me. I’m looking for my cat. She’s ginger and stripy. Have you seen her?”

“Oh, Barry? He’s the one with the stripy tie. And stripy hat. And trousers. And shirt.”

You can also use “striped” instead:

“Why has everyone got a striped bag here? What’s going on?”

With a lot of patterns in English, you can also use “in + noun.”

This is often used when talking about things in a more “fashiony” way:

“OK, we need the singers all in stripes. That’s right – like convicts!”

Verb: –
Noun: stripe
Adjective: striped, stripy


Spotted pattern of pink spots on a white background

What it is:

Lots of small circles … or in other words, lots of spots.

That’s it!

How to use it:

Like most adjectives, this is more common before the noun:

“Ooooh! I love your spotted curtains!”

You can also use it as a verb meaning “to notice”:

“We spotted a great deal online for a nice little hostel in Varna.”

You might’ve seen the word “spotty” around, too.

But you probably wouldn’t really use it to describe a pattern – it has too much of a chaotic feel about it.

You’re more likely to use it about a teenager’s face (because of all the acne) or metaphorically to mean unreliable, like your phone reception on the moon or a politician’s honesty record.

Verb: –
Noun: spot
Adjective: spotted, spotty


Polka-dot pattern: large black polka dots on a white background

What it is:

Basically, this is the same as “spotted.”

The main thing is that in a polka-dot pattern, all the circles are the same size and evenly spaced.

How to use it:

It’s usually used as an adjective:

“I can’t stand polka-dot bow ties! Seriously, if he’s wearing one, I’m leaving.”

Verb: –
Noun: polka dot
Adjective: polka-dot, polka-dotted


Light grey-green background with a white speckled pattern

What it is:

This is similar to “spotted.”

But when something’s speckled, we’re emphasising the random sizes of the spots. It’s more organic, and you’ll probably find it more in nature than in fashion.

How to use it:

“Speckled” is an adjective.

“The shoes have this interesting speckled pattern on the sides.”

But it’s often used as a passive verb.

Sometimes to describe unwanted speckles:

“The kids came home with their clothes speckled in mud. They wouldn’t say where they’d been.”

Sometimes intentional ones:

“Shiv’s guitar was speckled with gold dust.”

Verb: speckle
Noun: speckle
Adjective: speckled


Black-and-white zigzag pattern

What it is:

A line that goes left then right then left then right.

You know this one. It’s like the floor of the black lodge in Twin Peaks.

How to use it:

You can use it with the word “pattern.”

“Barry’s wearing that jumper with the zigzag pattern on it again.”

And it’s often used as a verb.

Which is fun:

“The path zigzags its way up the mountain.”

Verb: zigzag
Noun: zigzag
Adjective: zigzag

Checked / Checkered

Black-and-white checkered pattern

What it is:

Repeating squares of at least two different colours.

You might remember the tea towel from my post on kitchen vocabulary:

Kitchen vocabulary: Tea towel

That’s checked.

How to use it:

OK, so we’ve got the usual adjective use:

“Which one do you want — the stripy one or the checked one?”

“Her ambition was strong, her mood fiery and her shirt checked.”

But we also have the phrase “checkered past.”

We use it when someone we know has some sort of dark secret from earlier in their life:

“When he finally became a member of parliament for Ipswich South, he never thought anyone would find out about his checkered past.”

Verb: –
Noun: check
Adjective: checked, checkered


Large scale black-and-white squiggly pattern

What it is:

Lines! But with no discipline! No order! And not straight.

Just going everywhere.

Like a child’s painting.

Or the “shortcuts” your Istanbul taxi driver likes to take.

How to use it:

We often use this word with nouns like “lines” or “shapes.”

“I don’t see anything … just a bunch of squiggly lines.”

Verb: –
Noun: squiggle
Adjective: squiggly


Floral pattern with interlocking small flowers in many different colours

What it is:

I need to tell you?

OK, then I shall!

Flowers! Lots of flowers.

Either in a repeated pattern or more like pictures of flowers (technically not a pattern, but we’re pretty laid back here at the Clark and Miller office).

How to use it:

Oh, the usual adjective vibe:

“Oh, those floral shorts! It’s Jake’s birthday soon. Shall we get them for him?”

While we’re here, I’d just like to put up my support for the underappreciated tree.

Flowers? Everyone goes on about flowers and puts them on clothes, duvet covers and curtains all the time.

But what about the trees?

Maybe we should produce more tree-patterned stuff?

Verb: –
Noun: flower
Adjective: floral


Multi-coloured wavy pattern

What it is:

You probably first heard this word when someone was describing hair.

Not curly, not straight – just somewhere in between.

Or, if it makes things easier, like waves in the ocean.

How to use it:

It’s an adjective, of course, but we usually use it with “pattern” or “lines”:

“What a cool tattoo! It’s just lots of wavy lines, but somehow it looks awesome!”

Verb: wave
Noun: wave
Adjective: wavy


Black-and-white geometric pattern made up of small circles and squares

What it is:

You might recognize this as a mathematical term.

And you’d be right!

A geometric pattern is a pattern with repeated shapes. They could be simple shapes, like triangles or squares, or more complicated ones.

How to use it:

Sure, it’s an adjective.

However, we don’t talk about geometric dresses or geometric hats. That would be describing the shape of the dress (or the hat) more than the pattern.

When talking about patterns, we really only use this word with the word “pattern.”

“The carpet’s awful. It has all these weird geometric patterns on it. You feel like you’re falling into the floor.”

Also, M.C. Escher was a king at this stuff. I’d love to show you one of his images here, but — even though he died in 1972 — all of his work is still aggressively copyrighted. Grrr.

Verb: –
Noun: –
Adjective: geometric


Plain, unpatterned red area

What it is:

But what about no pattern?

Then we use “plain.” It’s the anti-pattern word!

How to use it:

This word is pretty straight-forward:

“Why does everyone walk around with writing on their clothes? I don’t get it! What’s wrong with a plain T-shirt and jeans?”

Verb: –
Noun: –
Adjective: plain


Random black pixelated pattern on a white background

What it is:

We often see this when our internet’s too slow or when something on TV is being censored.

When I lived in Turkey, they weren’t allowed to show cigarettes, alcohol, corporate brands or women’s cleavage on TV.

The problem was that old 1970s Turkish movies consisted mostly of people smoking and drinking (because the ’70s). Many of these people were women with limited clothes on.

This resulted in a screen full of pixels, and the only thing you could see were some random moustaches floating around.

Anyway, pixelated patterns can be really nice.

Bulgarian traditional patterns have a pixelated vibe:

Traditional Bulgarian pixelated pattern in red, black and white

How to use it:

Like “geometric,” “pixelated” doesn’t usually refer to the thing you’re describing. You can’t talk about a pixelated shirt or a pixelated table cloth. Unless it’s on TV, and they’ve decided that you can’t handle such things.

So you usually use it with words like “pattern,” “image” or “design.”

“Can you do the website homepage with a sort of pixelated design? You know – make it glitchy!”

Verb: pixelate
Noun: pixel
Adjective: pixelated

Camouflage / Camo

Camouflage pattern in different shades of green

What it is:

“Camo” is short for “camouflage,” which is the act of disguising soldiers to make them blend in with their surroundings.

So if you were out in the snow, plain white stuff would be good camouflage.

Out in the desert, you’d want something more yellow.

And in space – well, black is the one for you!

But when we use the word “camo,” we’re not usually talking about disguising ourselves.

I mean, I live in a small city in the centre of Bulgaria … not many enemies around (unless you count Barry). I don’t need to hide; I need to pay my internet bill and buy carrots.

So “camo” usually refers to anything with that military pattern with random shapes in one colour over a background of the same colour but slightly darker or lighter.

How to use it:

This is, once again, used as an adjective most of all.

We often mention the colour as well:

“And here she is! I knew she’d be wearing something weird! Pink camo! Nice!”

Verb: camouflage
Noun: camouflage, camo
Adjective: camouflage, camo


Black-and-white pinstriped waistcoat

What it is:

Pinstripe material (and it’s usually just on material) has repeated thin lines – usually lighter lines on a darker background.

Basically, just imagine a power suit from the ’80s:

1980s Pinstripe Power Suit
Grey Double-Buttoned Suit Jacket by Marcus Kaiser | CC 3.0

How to use it:

So we have the adjective:

“Have you seen my jacket? The pinstriped one.”

But it can also be used as a noun:

“What? An umbrella with pink pinstripes? I’m … I’m actually having trouble trying to imagine what that looks like.”

Verb: –
Noun: pinstripe
Adjective: pinstripe, pinstriped


Plaid pattern: black checks on a red background

What it is:

Plaid is basically a kind of checked pattern.

When researching the differences between checks and plaids and tartans (see below), my head almost exploded. The differences can be small, and sometimes they overlap.

But generally speaking, a checked pattern will only have a couple of colours (with maybe a little overlap), while plaid patterns will have more shading and will look a little more complex.

How to use it:

“Plaid” is an adjective:

“Is that a plaid pattern? Or is it checked? I just can’t tell anymore!”

But you can use it as a noun, too:

“These are my favourite plaids. As you can see, I’m very keen on the brown ones.”

Verb: –
Noun: plaid
Adjective: plaid


Yellow, black and white tartan

What it is:

As soon as I hear “tartan,” this is what I see:

The Scottish Highlands with grass, a lake, distant mountains and low-lying dark clouds

The Scottish highlands!

Home of quality whisky, glorious mountains and massive lakes with monsters in them.

Oh, and the kilt:

Man in traditional Scottish dress playing bagpipes in front of a stone bridge

The pattern there or the kilt? That’s a tartan.

Each Scottish clan has its own tartan that represents it. But it’s not just clans that have tartans. In fact, if you design an original one, you can register it with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

How to use it:

As you can see from the way I used it above, you can use it as a noun:

“That’s a nice tartan!”

But you can still use it as an adjective:

“Have you seen my notebook? You know, the one with the tartan pattern on the front?”

Verb: –
Noun: tartan
Adjective: tartan


Leopard-print pattern

What it is:

You can probably guess the meaning of this, right?

That’s right – something that looks like a leopard’s fur!

How to use it:

As usual, this is most commonly used as an adjective to describe specific things:

“I think he owns about 20 leopard-print hats, 120 leopard-print shirts … and don’t ask about the trousers.”

You can also have “animal print” and “tiger print,” too.

But I’m not sure why you would.

Verb: –
Noun: leopard print
Adjective: leopard-print

And there we have it – 17 patterns in English!

So over to you – let’s go back to the question at the beginning of the post.

Look around you: how many patterns can you see? Can you name them?

You can?

That’s great!

Then tell me what they are in the comments below!

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13 thoughts on “Patterns in English: Everything You Need To Know (Almost)

  1. Thank you Gabriel! I had hard times trying to talk about patterns with my friends from USA and Canada. I’ve figured out my own way to describe them when talking about my clothes. For “plain” I would say: with nothing on, only the solid color. For polka-dot: full of little circles, and floral: with flowers painted on. I’m not sure if they really got what I meant, hahaha. But now I know, thanks to you! I love your tips and ebooks!

    1. Hi Ana,

      That’s great to hear!

      To be fair, they could probably understand your creative “work-arounds.” But sure — it’s always better to be more efficient, right?

      Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, Will use this , if we go back to on-line learning this year, for a treasure Hunt. Get my students to look around their house for different patterns.

  3. That’s a good job both are doing over there supplying us with lessons to enjoy Teaching English.

    Thanks and Keep it up

  4. Very useful, as all your posts. I didn’t know pinstriped or the expression “checkered past”. Thanks Gabriel. I missed “diamond”, which has been a popular pattern, too.

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