by Elena Shvidko

40 Proverbs to Spice Up Your English and Make You Wiser

book in the sun

People say that proverbs are timeless.  They are passed on from generation to generation and at times it’s hard to trace them back to their origin.  Proverbs reflect important cultural values and the wisdom of people.  By understanding proverbs, we can better understand what people of a particular culture or nation respect and treasure.  Thus, proverbs can be called a window to another culture.

How can you—an English language learner—benefit from understanding and using proverbs?  Actually, there are quite a few benefits if you think about it.  First, the use of proverbs in your daily communication can indicate the sophisticated level of your language abilities and demonstrate that you are truly proficient in the English language.

Second, as they have been created through and by people’s wisdom, proverbs contain answers to many questions about life, responsibilities, and relationships with people around us.  By seeking knowledge from proverbs’ profound meanings, you can become a more mature and intelligent individual.

In addition, as mentioned above, proverbs reflect important cultural norms and values of the people in a particular culture.  And since understanding culture is a major component of the language learning process, you can become a more proficient language user by knowing the meaning of the proverbs in this language.

Finally, whereas many cultures developed and accumulated unique proverbs, there are many proverbs that express universal morals, norms, and life principles.  By learning proverbs in English, you may be able to find lots in common between the Western culture and the culture of you home country.

Below is the list of the most commonly used proverbs in the English language.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. There may be many people around you who consider themselves your friend. But only someone who is there for you in a difficult situation to help you and support you can be called your true friend.

A watched pot never boils. If you impatiently wait for something good and desirable to happen in your life, it is probably not going to happen.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. People begin to understand the true value of things when they no longer have them.  So when you are apart from someone, you realize how much you really appreciate and love that person.

Actions speak louder than words. It’s important that behavior reflect your words.  So if you say one thing, but do another, there is no truth (and therefore no value) in your words.

A penny saved is a penny earned. In order to save money, you need to be thrifty and careful with your spending. Every penny that you save helps to maintain your financial situation.

A stitch in time saves nine. It’s a warning against procrastination.  If you have a problem, you need to face it immediately and try to find a solution before it grows too large, so it would be hard to solve. 

Bad news travels fast. Bad news usually includes announcements about death, illnesses, and accidents.  For some reason people tend to pass bad news quickly to each other.  So as soon as misfortune happens, everyone knows about it.

Better late than never. It is much better to do something later (especially an important task or an act of kindness), than not do it at all.

Better safe than sorry. It’s wise to be vigilant and do something cautiously and carefully than disregard the cautions and later suffer from negative consequences.

Curiosity killed the cat. If you are too inquisitive and try to know more than you are supposed to (usually the things that are not of your business), you can get yourself in trouble.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. You should wait to celebrate your success until it actually happens.  In fact, something might go wrong and you will not receive the reward you were hoping for; in this case, you will face a huge disappointment.

ladybug on a leaf

Don’t judge a book by its cover. You shouldn’t make your judgments based on the appearance of a person or an object.  In fact, the outer look may only give us superficial information, and sometimes it is deceiving because it can be very different from the inner qualities.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You should make everything you have depending on one success.  Your risks should be diversified; otherwise, you will lose everything if the project fails.

Easy come, easy go. If you received something without putting too much effort into it, you may lose it as effortlessly as you obtained it, and perhaps even without any regret.

Every cloud has a silver lining. There is a positive side in every seemingly bad situation.  You need to be optimistic and try to think positively.

Give someone an inch, he/she will take a mile. It refers to a person who is more likely to take advantage of you and your kindness.  If you help such a person once, he/she will demand even more from you.

Honesty is the best policy. No matter how difficult it might be to say the truth, to be honest is the best decision in any situation.

Keep your fingers crossed! If you hope for a success in your undertaking (or for the one of another person), you should literally cross your fingers, and it’s believed that the lucky outcome will come.

Money is the root of all evil. Since many of the challenges that people face are somehow related to money, some people say that money is the cause of all problems in the world.

Look before you leap. You should carefully plan things out before you make an important decision or start something new.  If you are hasty and thoughtless, you may lose or fail.

Never to old too learn. You should not assume that you won’t be able to acquire new knowledge or skills just because you are old.  Do not miss the opportunity to learn something new no matter your age.  It’s never too late!

No news is good news. Just because bad news arrives quickly (see above), it’s probably a good sign that you do not receive any information when you are waiting for some news to come.

Practice makes perfect. If you wish to be proficient in a certain area and improve your skills, you need to consistently practice it, and you will eventually succeed.

Practice what you preach. If you give advice to other people or you teach them about particular life principles, you should follow your own advice too; otherwise, your behavior may be viewed as hypocrisy.

Still waters run deep. A person that appears to be calm and quiet on the outside may have a passionate and strong personality.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Children usually inherit the traits, actions, and behavior of their parents.  So there is no wonder if a child repeats the mistakes of his/her parents.

The early bird gets the worm. People who start their day early, tend to accomplish more than others.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It’s believed that most men enjoy tasty food.  So if a woman wants to win a man’s heart, she should cook delicious meals for him.

There are plenty of other fishes in the sea. If you did not receive something you were hoping for, there are lots of other opportunities that you can use later (and perhaps even better than the one that you missed) to obtain what you desire.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. There is more than one way of solving a problem or achieving a goal, so you always need to look for alternatives.

To kill two birds with one stone. It refers to an action that accomplishes two goals at once, so usually it’s a lucky shot!

Too many cooks spoil the broth. If too many people are trying to take control over the situation or task, they will eventually fail.  Therefore, it’s important to appoint one person who will be in charge of the project.

Two heads are better than one. Two people have a better chance of solving a problem or accomplishing a task than an individual person does.

Turn the other cheek. This saying comes from one of the Christian values—to be forgiving.  Literally it means you should turn your other cheek if someone slaps you on the first.  Figuratively speaking, you should not argue with someone who is trying to hurt you, nor shouldn’t you hold grudge or seek revenge.  Instead, you should graciously forgive the offender and move on.

pink flower

We will cross that bridge when we get to it. This proverb is used when someone wants to say he/she will work on a problem when it comes closer, not now.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you really want to accomplish something, you will be able to find a way to achieve it (receive it).

When it rains, it pours. Misfortune doesn’t come alone, rather it brings another challenge, obstacle or bad luck.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You will become stronger and more experienced by facing a trial.  And even if it seems unbearable at the moment, it will eventually be your benefit.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can give advice to someone or teach someone how to do certain things, but it doesn’t mean they will follow your advice.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The patterns in someone’s behavior are hard to break.  This is especially true for older people, who have already established their own preferences, styles, and ways of living.  Thus, it’s hard for them to acquire innovations or learn new skills.

You just became a little wiser! There are certainly other proverbs that people use in the English language, so exercise your noticing skills and you will learn more interesting and useful facts about the language, the people, and the culture!

Can you share any other proverbs that you find useful in learning English?

happy little girl at the seaside in the summer time

 

About the author:

Elena is originally from Russia and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Second Language Studies in the U.S. She has taught various ESL classes in academic and community contexts. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities, especially hiking and fishing.