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From Japanesepod101:

象は灰色をしている。

The elephant is gray.

The meaning of the sentence is not in doubt but I've been trying to figure how する is being used here. Checking a dictionary, definition 2エ might be applicable here.

ある状態・性質であることを示す。(To show something's state/nature)

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  • Maybe I should be asking a new question, but native speakers: how natural do you found this sentence compared to 象は灰色だ? I find 灰色をしている unnatural unless the 灰色 is modified, as in 像は綺麗な灰色をしていた.
    – dainichi
    Mar 16, 2015 at 1:17

1 Answer 1

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It is exactly as you say.

「~~をする」 can mean "to have ~~ (as a natural characteristic)" and it is usually used in the form 「~~をしている」,「~~をしていた」 or 「~~をした」.

The "dictionary" form 「~~をする」 would not be used in a real-life situation; It is only found in dictionaries or a place like this where grammar or vocabulary is discussed.

Among those forms, 「~~をした」 is always followed immediately by a noun or noun phrase. You cannot end a sentence with 「~~をした」 when 「する」 is used for the meaning we are discussing. That is to say:

Always use 「している」 for the present tense and always use 「していた」 for the past.

している:「スミ子さんはきれいな[目]{め}をしている。」= "Sumiko has beautiful eyes."

していた:「[犯人]{はんにん}は[青]{あお}い目をしていた。」= "The culprit had blue eyes."

した:「[赤]{あか}い[髪]{かみ}をした[人]{ひと}が[好]{す}きです。」= "I like redheads." Or more literally, "I like people who have read hair." 

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