In “What Idioms Actually Are” we talked about formulaic /ˌfɔːmjʊˈleɪɪk/ language, which consists of fixed expressions which you learn and understand as units rather than individual words. There are a few types of formulaic language, and one of the types is sayings/provers.
A saying (proverb) is a sentence that people often say and that gives advice or information about human life and experience.
In every language there are a lot of proverbs. Interestingly, proverbs in different languages sometimes express an idea with words meaning exactly the same thing. For example, both the English “there is no smoke without fire” and the Russian “нет дыма без огня” (lit. “there is no smoke without fire”) render the same idea and use the same grammar pattern and vocabulary. By the way, the proverb is originally neither English nor Russian. It’s of French origin. Perhaps, it explains the similarity.
However, proverbs in different languages usually convey the same (or similar) idea differently. Let’s take the English “practice makes perfect” and the Japanese 『習うより慣れる』for example. Although the Japanese saying is commonly translated as “practice makes perfect,” it literally says ” it is better to get used to it than learn it.”
Sometimes it is very difficult to find an analogue for a foreign language proverb. For example, 『故郷に錦を飾る』(lit. decorating the hometown with brocade) is a Japanese saying which is about the importance of making your hometown proud of you. It encourages people to do good deeds and promotes a sense of community. If you can think of an equivalent (not necessarily English), please let us know in the comments below.
Is it so necessary to use proverbs? They answer is of course you can do without them. But sayings can add color to your speech, and make you sound more convincing and natural. When used appropriately, they can strike a chord with readers or listeners. But if they are used wrong, they can cause misunderstanding and confusion. It is also important to note that proverbs provide an insightful window into a community’s lifestyle, history, and culture, which is why it’s so interesting and useful to learn them.
25 COMMON PROVERBS
Learn 25 common English proverbs which you can use in various situations of your everyday life:
- Better late than never (it is better for someone or something to be late than never to arrive or to happen): I forgot Mary’s birthday! Should I send her a gift anyway? – Sure, better late than never.
- Better safe than sorry (it is best not to take risks even when it seems boring or difficult to be careful): Make sure you take an umbrella – I know it’s sunny now, but better safe than sorry.
- All’s fair in love and war (in love and war you do not have to obey the usual rules about reasonable behavior): I want to steal her boyfriend. I’m crazy about him, and all’s fair in love and war.
- Curiosity killed the cat (being inquisitive about other people’s affairs may get you into trouble): How are you going to steal her boyfriend? – Curiosity killed the cat.
- It takes two to tango (both parties involved in a situation or argument are equally responsible for it): She says he is to blame for their divorce, but it takes two to tango.
- You can’t judge a book by its cover (you cannot know what something or someone is like by looking only at that person or thing’s appearance): He always wears black but he is the most optimistic person I know. You can’t judge a book by its cover.
- Easy come, easy go (when something, especially money, is easily got, it is soon spent or lost): He won the lottery but squandered all the money. Easy come, easy go.
- A fool and his money are soon parted (a foolish person spends money carelessly and will soon be broke): He’s inherited a million dollars, but a fool and his money are soon parted. All he does is gamble.
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (when something is in a satisfactory state, there is no reason to try to change it): This old sofa can still be used. But if you decided to have it repaired, you’d have to spend a fortune. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
- Like father, like son (fathers and sons resemble each other, and sons tend to do what their fathers did before them): Jake’s father was impatient, and so is Jake. Like father, like son.
- Blood is thicker than water (family relationships and loyalties are the strongest and most important ones): Family should always come first because blood is thicker than water.
- The grass is (always) greener (on the other side) (it seems that other people are always in a better situation than you, although they may not be): You are rich and famous, but you still think that your sister, who is just a waitress, is happier. The grass is always greener on the other side.
- God helps those who help themselves (if you make an effort to achieve something, you will be successful): Work hard because there is no shortcut to success. God helps those who help themselves.
- No pain, no gain (you can only achieve something by suffering or working hard): Do you want to lose some weight? Go to the gym and work out. No pain, no gain.
- Nothing ventured, nothing gained (you can’t expect to achieve anything if you never take any risks): I know you are scared to take this risk, but remember nothing ventured, nothing gained.
- Fortune favors the bold/brave (courageous action is often rewarded): I know you’re nervous about asking for a raise, but keep in mind that fortune favors the bold.
- When in Rome (do as the Romans do) (when you are visiting another place, you should follow the customs of the people in that place): In Ukraine, for example, you should give a person an odd number of flowers – an even number is associated with death and funerals. When in Rome…
- Honesty is the best policy (you should always tell the truth): It would be so easy just to lie, but honesty is the best policy, so I’ll tell him the truth.
- Actions speak louder than words (what you do is more significant than what you say): He keeps telling you that he loves you, but he never does anything to prove it. Actions speak louder than words.
- A leopard can’t/doesn’t change its spots (a person’s character, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend that it will): He seems to be kind and thoughtful now, but a leopard can’t change its spots.
- Once bitten twice shy (an unpleasant experience induces caution): My heart was broken before, so now I don’t rush into a romantic relationship. Once bitten twice shy.
- Don’t cross that bridge till you come to it (don’t needlessly worry yourself over concerns, problems, or difficulties that lie in the future): I know you’re worried about the mortgage payment in January, but don’t cross that bridge till you come to it.
- It’s not over till it’s over (it is not over yet and will not be until the event has completely played out): They haven’t won the game yet. It’s not over till it’s over.
- Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (not all people have the same opinions about what is attractive): You may think this dog is ugly but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
- Learn to walk before you run (grasp the basic skills before attempting something more difficult): I know you want to play Beethoven, but you should learn to walk before you run.
You can read about the origins of all the proverbs from the list here.
Is there an English proverb you often use? Please share it with us adding a comment below. We appreciate your feedback!