Proverbs are common phrases that express generally held beliefs or offer advice about how to live. Proverbs are those sage words of wisdom that can give us advice on how to deal with many situations in life.
It is useful to know some of the most common English proverbs because they can sometimes appear in a conversation. It is always helpful to know what they mean and how they are relevant to the situation.
Unlike idioms, proverbs do make sense when taken literally but it is only when you apply them to wider situations that their true meaning becomes clear.
Using Proverbs in English
When people use proverbs in English they often just say the first part of the proverb. This is similar to when using cockney rhyming slang. Only the first half of the phrase is needed to make the listener understand.
Proverbs are also sometimes used tongue-in cheek (not seriously) to add some humour to a conversation.
Common English Proverbs
Here is a list of some common English proverbs with an explanation of their modern meaning:
“Look before you leap”
Consider all the possible consequences before you act
“Two wrongs don’t make a right”
Just because someone has done something bad does not make it OK for you also do something bad
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”
This proverb comes from Shakespeare: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loses both itself and friend.” This means neither borrow money from nor lend money to a friend – or you might lose both
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease”
The person who complains gets attention more quickly
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
Act in the same way as others around you to fit in with the culture you are living in or visiting. This is useful for when living abroad or on holiday.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”
Strong people work harder in the face of a challenge
“No man is an island”
No one is totally independent and everyone needs help at some point
“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”
Do not criticise other people if you are not perfect yourself
“A bad workman blames his tools”
An unskilled person blames the objects/machines/tools they used for their own mistakes
“Beggars can’t be choosers”
If you don’t have many options, you should accept what is available
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”
Eating good food makes you healthier
“Actions speak louder than words”
Words are easy to say but actually doing something is harder and means much more
“A watched pot never boils”
Waiting and watching closely for something to finish makes it feel as though it takes forever
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
If something is working fine, don’t try to change it because you might make it worse
“Don’t cry over spilled milk”
There is no point feeling bad about something that has already happened
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
Everyone has a different idea about what is beautiful
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”
When working towards a plan, you might make a mistake or you might upset someone. This doesn’t matter, just keep working towards the results.
“Birds of a feather flock together”
People who are similar tend to get on well and spend more time together
“Familiarity breeds contempt”
You tend to get irritated by someone if you spend a lot of time with them
“Attack is the best form of defense”
A pre-emptive strike is the best way to protect yourself
“The grass is always greener on the other side”
People tend to want the things they don’t currently have
“You can’t judge a book by its cover”
Something might be very different in reality from how it looks on the surface
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”
You can give someone advice or help but you can’t force them to act on your advice or use it well
“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”
Don’t upset the person who is doing you a favour
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”
If someone offers you a favour – take it!
“Too many cooks spoil the broth”
If too many people all try to take charge or get involved, it gets confusing and nothing gets done
“Every cloud has a silver lining”
Every negative situation has a positive aspect
“The apple never falls far from the tree”
Children inherit the characteristics of their parents
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”
Don’t pin all your hopes on one plan – make sure you have other options
“A friend in need is a friend indeed”
A true friend will help you in tough times
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”
Don’t assume your plan will work – wait to make sure it is a success before making plans for the future
“A stitch in time saves nine”
Resolve a problem straight away because it will probably save time later
What is your favourite English proverb?
Which English proverbs do you think make the most sense or are the truest?
Do you have a favourite English proverb?
Are there any proverbs that make you laugh?
Which are your favourite proverbs from your own language?
Let us know your thoughts on proverbs in the comments!