Proverbs are commonly used in everyday English, many native speakers use them without even being aware of it. A proverb can tell you a lot about the traditions and culture of the country you are visiting. The ethics and values of a country are regularly reflected in their proverbs. With that in mind here is a useful list of the most commonly heard proverbs in the English language.
What Is A Proverb?
A proverb is a saying from which we can learn something. It has a meaning and a truth to it, making it something that we can apply to our everyday lives. A proverb is a saying that is traditional to one country or a region. In many cases, they have a specific historical context and they commonly contain some type of advice.
In a biblical sense, there is a book of Proverbs which was written by King Solomon, however proverbs are not just a spiritual thing, they can be applied to every aspect of our lives from family to work and fun situations to more serious ones.
The Importance of Learning Proverbs
You might be wondering what is the point of a proverb and why is it important for us to learn them. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a proverb is a saying which includes a truth, from these truths we can learn something about life, this gives us the opportunity to better ourselves and even learn from our mistakes. By learning proverbs and the meaning behind them we not only give ourselves a better general knowledge but also make ourselves wiser in our approach to life.
There are proverbs which come from all over the world including ancient Greece, China and Latin, however let’s put our focus today on some English proverbs, what do they mean?
Proverbs List with Meaning and Examples
1. It is no use locking the stable door after the horse has bolted
This proverb speaks about taking action when it is too late. If your aim was to keep your horse safely locked in its stable, it is too late to achieve this if you only lock the door after the horse has escaped. In real life this could apply to many situations, for example, say you want to learn a new language because you are going to work in another country, you must do this before you leave and not once you arrive in the country because by this point, it will be too late.
2. It is better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all
The meaning behind this proverb doesn’t just refer to love but to any life experience. If you had never fallen in love you would never have had that experience or been able to learn from it, so whilst it is painful, it is also a lesson and something that you know more about now. This can apply to other situations in life aside from love, for example, it is better to have lost your job than to have never been employed in the first place. Now you can learn from this, and perhaps even start a new career that you have always dreamed of.
3. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush
This famous proverb may seem a little complicated at first glance but it talks about the value of the things that we already have compared to the value of things that we wish for. A good example would be, turning down the offer of a great job when you don’t have one already because you think that you might end up getting a better offer, but this isn’t certain. It would have been better to take the first offer because that is a certainty.
4. A leopard never changes its spots
The meaning here is referring to a personality trait of someone, usually not a very good one and that once someone has adopted that trait, they will never be able to change it. This proverb is often used when talking about someone who has been unfaithful in their relationship. If they have cheated once, they are likely to do it again, prompting the saying “A leopard never changes its spots.”
A regularly used proverb, this talks about things not being as good as they first appear. For example a person might dream about living in the huge mansion at the end of the street, but in reality the cost of running that mansion is a whole other set of problems, the house might look amazing but in truth it isn’t as great as it first appears.
6. An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Historically apples have always been considered healthy food. For many centuries they were one of the few fruits that were readily and freely available to everyone in England. In recent years we discovered that the high vitamin C and fiber content in the fruit makes it a very healthy food.
Referring to your health, this proverb is talking about living a healthy lifestyle in order to avoid illness. Whilst it is not actually advising that eating a single apple each day will prevent you from ever having to visit a doctor, it means that by living a healthy life, doctors visits will be less frequent. For example, if you eat plenty of fruit and vegetable and exercise regularly, you will be less likely to fall prey to bad health.
This interesting proverb talks about not cutting corners in order to save yourself a bit of time because in the end, these cuts will catch up with you and will leave you with considerably more work that you would have had if you had done the job properly in the first instance. For example, if you are fitting some water pipes but do not screw them into place tightly enough because you want to save a bit of time, eventually those pipes will start to leak and as well as fixing them you will have the added job of clearing up the water.
8. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Simply put, this means that what one person finds beautiful, another may not. For example, John finds his dog the most beautiful animal in the world but his friend Arthur does not think she is beautiful at all. Each person sees beauty in different things.
9. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side
This proverb talks about the envy of things that other people have or that you wish you could have. Let’s say for example that you live on the east side of town and your friend lives on the west, looking at your friends life on the west side of town, you see how wonderful it is, you wish that you had that kind of life. However, when you decide to move to that different part of town, it isn’t what you thought it would be and you realise that your previous home was much better for you. Something that looks great from afar, may not be what you think once you get closer. Be happy with what you already have.
10. Never judge a book by its cover
When you hear this proverb, it is not simply referring to something that you read. It is talking about how we should not make a judgement on someone based on their outward appearance. For example, if you saw a man who was dressed in tattered clothing, you might make the assumption that he was unclean and poor, however for all you know he could be the richest man in the world, wearing those tattered clothes because he is doing some manual work and he didn’t want to ruin his best suit. Outward appearances do not always speak about what is underneath.
You should never make a judgment about something or someone simply based on first impressions. In many circumstances, you will find out that you are wrong.
11. A bad workman always blames his tools
This proverb is used when talking about someone who blames the bad job that he has done on the tools he has been using, when in reality, the job was done badly by him. For example, if a doctor had given a patient the wrong diagnosis, he might say that it was because his stethoscope had malfunctioned when really he simply hadn’t taken the time to examine the patient properly and therefore had made the error himself.
The meaning behind this proverb is that having some distance from something or someone that we love can actually cause us to care for that thing or person even more. If, for example, you had to take a trip without your partner, whilst you were away you would miss that person and the desire to be around them would grow, therefore making you even more fond of them than you were in the first instance.
13. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
While this proverb is not talking about a literal chain, it does refer to a situation or group of people that will crumble when the weakest part of that group crumbles. A good example of this would be, if a group were to build a human pyramid, there could be 14 very strong people who will build the pyramid and keep it standing but a 15th person who was weaker than the rest, once they falter, they cause a snowball effect, making the rest of the pyramid collapse. In essence, the proverb teaches us that in any situation, we should make sure that all components are strong or else the entire operation will fail.
This proverb refers to the fact that we can say things we do not mean but in order to prove them we need to take physical actions. For example, if you were to upset a friend because, let’s say, you broke an item that was precious to them. Simply saying sorry would not show your true feelings about the situation, but if you either fixed the item or brought a replacement, your actions would show that you were genuinely remorseful for what had happened.
Be a man of your word, people trust what they see, not what they hear. People will judge you by your actions, be careful of talking too much, people will expect you to follow up.
15. A rolling stone gathers no moss
This proverb is talking about how if a person rumbles through life without ever stopping, they will gain nothing from life and no experience or benefit from it. It could be applied to a lot of areas of life such as relationships but a good example would be of somebody who constantly switched their job, moving from career to career without ever staying in one long enough to take any of the benefit from it or gain any experience in the field.
16. A barking dog rarely bites
You might hear this proverb when referring to someone who appears to be a threat but in reality is not. For example, this may be used if someone looks physically aggressive either by their outward appearance or the things that they say, but when it comes to confrontation, they back away. A proverb that is linked to this one but means the same is ‘his bark is worse than his bite.’
17. Beauty is skin deep
Similar to the proverb above, this one talks about a persons outward appearance not aligning with their true personality. It means a person who may appear physically beautiful on the outside but has less than desirable inner personality traits. For example, you could use this proverb when talking about a supermodel who despite being outwardly gorgeous, is rude and obnoxious to those she works with.
18. Blood is thicker than water
This proverb essentially means that family ties are stronger than any other type, using blood as the literal term for a relative (as in you share the same DNA.) A good example of when to use this would be if a family member and a close friend had a disagreement, you might decide that despite being impartial in the argument, you are going to take the side of the family member because ‘blood is thicker than water.’
19. Every dog has his day
When someone uses the proverb, they are talking about the fact that every person, despite their situation or how fortunate they may or may not be, will have a moment of success at some point. For example, someone who is unlucky in love and suddenly meets his soulmate, you might use this proverb in that situation.
20. Give him an inch and he will take a mile
This proverb refers to a situation where you show a little generosity to a person and they take advantage of that generosity by taking more than you have offered. An example of this type of situation would be, if a man were to loan his friend some money and allowed him a longer time than usual to pay it back, so the friend kept returning asking for more money and more time.
21. Good things come to those who wait
This is a very simple proverb which reminds us that patience will reward us in the end. For those who rush into things and expect a quick outcome, this is unlikely but for those who take their time and are willing to wait for their reward, this proverb is fitting.
22. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it
This proverb is referring to a situation when someone might take it upon themselves to try to alter something that is already working perfectly fine. and in doing so may actually cause problems that were not there in the first place. Let’s take, for example, the system for a gardening company who is always on time and always completes the work to a great standard, everything within the company is running smoothly, there is no need to make any adjustments to how the company is run…if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
23. There is no use in crying over spilt milk
This means that once a mistake has been made, there is no point in dwelling on it. Moving on is the easiest option. For example, if you were to make a huge error at work which resulted in problems for the entire team you worked with, you might spend lots of time worrying about what you have done when in reality, the best thing to do would be to learn from the mistake and solve the problem.
When something is done, it’s done. You can’t change the past. Yes, it may have been bad, but complaining about it will change nothing.
24. Laughter is the best medicine
This proverb means that even in hard times, focusing on something positive will help you through. For example, if you have just had an accident and caused yourself a serious injury which has left you bedbound for a period of time, you are not going to feel any better by feeling sorry for yourself, but if you invite a friend over and laugh and enjoy one another’s company, your spirits will be lifted.
25. Many hands make light work
This one is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The more people work together the faster and easier a task will be. Two hands are better than one, Four hands are better than two and so on.
26. Strike while the iron is hot
This proverbs has its roots in Blacksmithery, to shape iron it is easier to do it when it is hot. The hotter the better. The saying tells you to take action in favorable circumstances because they can change very quickly and it might not be as achieve success.
27. Honesty is the best policy
This proverb tells you that people appreciate the truth in all circumstances. , if you tell the truth you will win the respect of others.
28. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence
This is a common saying, it means that people always think other people are happier, more successful, living better lives than you. In many cases, this is not true. The lesson is to be grateful for what you have.
29. Better late than never
It simply means that it is ok to be late, just get the task finished.
30. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
Don’t disrespect the person you are dependant upon. If someone offers you help, don’t get angry with them, they are trying their best.
31. Rome wasn’t built in a day
The most important things in life take time. Don’t be in a hurry.
32. Still waters run deep
This is an interesting one. You will hear this said about intelligent but socially awkward people. It a little like “don’t judge a book by its cover”. It simply means that a person may be quiet but still are very interesting once you get to know them.
A polite way of telling someone to “Mind your own business”. Pay attention to your own life, ignore things that don’t concern you.
You could be harmed by being too curious about or too interested in something that doesn’t concern you.
34. My hands are tied
This simply means that I cannot do anything to help. It paints a pretty vivid picture if your hands were tied there isn’t a lot you could do to help anyone.
35. Out of sight, out of mind
This proverb means that we tend to forget about things we cannot see or hear.
36. Easy come, easy go
Any money that you don’t have to work hard for, will disappear as easily as you got it. It is regularly used in reference to gambling.
37. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs
To achieve anything in life you will encounter a few problems, sometimes you will have to make a few sacrifices in the short term to achieve a greater long term goal.
38. The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest
Doing something that you know you shouldn’t always feel good. Just thinking about the act can make you feel good.
39. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours
If you help me, I will return the favor and help you.
40. It’s the tip of the iceberg
When it comes to Icebergs, the vast majority of the ice is below the water level. We cannot see it, only the tip. This proverb is used to describe encountering problems when trying to do something. But the bigger issue is that this particular problem isn’t the worst one you will encounter. It is highly likely that far worse issues lie ahead.
41. Learn to walk before you run
A common proverb, it means that you need to learn the basics of a skill before you master it. Something that is very true for learning a new language. It just means that you need to be patient.
42. First things first
Tells you to prioritize your tasks. Do the most important things first.
43. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Be aware of your limitations, don’t try to do something you know you can’t. It’s ok to say you don’t know.
44. It’s better to be safe than sorry
This simply means to be careful. Take your time, it’s better to get something done correctly the first time. Rather than to finish a task quickly and risk problems at a later date.
45. The early bird catches the worm
This proverb is similar to “Strike while the iron is hot”, it means to be successful be the first across the line, do it before everyone else.
46. A rolling stone gathers no moss
It has two meanings, the first means that to be successful in life you need to settle down in one place and stop moving all the time.
It also means that an active busy person will never stagnate and should prove to be productive and creative.
This proverb means that people who share a common ground will usually be more drawn to one another.
For example, people who have a hobby that they share, or who come from a similar cultural background will be more likely to interact with one another.
This phrase means that humour should be kept short and to the point otherwise it might lose its effect. However, it can also refer to a piece of writing, in the same way it does with humour in that the writing should be concise in order to best display its meaning.
You could use this phrase when a person with whom you are talking goes above and beyond the point that they are trying to make. If that person is attempting to over-explain, you might use this term.
49. A picture is worth a thousand words
This phrase talks about how a visual image can mean a lot more than words. When trying to explain a profound meaning behind a situation, person or item, you can spend hours trying to describe it with words and yet a simple picture of the thing can explain it much more quickly and efficiently.
This proverb means that the great things in life cannot last forever and at some point will either fade away or end. It is a phrase which can make us think about appreciating the good things in life as we will not always have them.
Common Proverbs List | Picture
List of Common Proverbs in English