Proverbs That Can Be Used In Essays

This is a list of popular English proverbs. Proverbs are also known as sayings. Proverbs give some form of life advice. Every language and culture has them, and many proverbs exist in more than one language. It is important not to miss any of the words in most proverbs because the meaning can be lost if even one word is changed or left out. This list of English proverbs includes definitions and examples, and is meant to improve English vocabulary and English cultural knowledge.

1PROVERBAbsence makes the heart grow fonder
MEANINGBeing away from someone or something for a period of time makes you appreciate that person or thing more when you see them or it again
EXAMPLE“I used to hate going to my aunt’s house, but now I kind of miss it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
2PROVERBActions speak louder than words.
MEANINGWhat you do is more important than what you say
EXAMPLE“Don’t just tell me you’re going to change. Do it! Actions speak louder than words.”
3PROVERBA journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
MEANINGYou must begin something if you hope to finish it; something that takes a long time to finish begins with one step
EXAMPLE“If you want to lose weight, you need to stop eating junk, and you need to start exercising. Today. Not tomorrow. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
4PROVERBAll good things must come to an end
MEANINGEverything ends; good times don’t last forever
EXAMPLE“I wish this vacation would go on forever. It’s too bad that all good things must come to an end.”
5PROVERBA picture is worth a thousand words
MEANINGAn image can tell a story better than words
EXAMPLE“I wasn’t sure that he loved her, but then I saw them hugging at the airport. A picture is worth a thousand words.”
6PROVERBA watched pot never boils
MEANINGIf something takes time to do, it doesn’t help to constantly check on it. You just have to give it time.
EXAMPLE“I know you think he’s going to be a great guitar player one day, but stop criticizing him so much. He just started taking lessons two weeks ago! A watched pot never boils.”
7PROVERBBeggars can’t be choosers
MEANINGIf you’re in a bad situation and someone offers to help you, you have to take whatever they give you and shouldn’t ask for more
EXAMPLE“I was unemployed, and they offered me a job cleaning prison toilets. I didn’t like the job, but I accepted it. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
8PROVERBBeauty is in the eye of the beholder
MEANINGWhat is “beautiful” is different for each person
EXAMPLE“I think their house is ugly, but they seem to like it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
9PROVERBBetter late than never
MEANINGIt’s better to finish something late than to never do it at all
EXAMPLE“Hello, Mr. Jameson. Here is my final essay. Better late than never, right?”
10PROVERBBirds of a feather flock together
MEANINGPeople who are similar spend time together
EXAMPLE“I think we all started hanging out because we all liked anime. Birds of a feather flock together.”
11PROVERBCleanliness is next to godliness
MEANINGIt’s good to be clean. God is clean, and you should be too.
EXAMPLE“Go take a shower before your date. You know what they say; cleanliness is next to godliness.”
12PROVERBDon’t bite the hand that feeds you
MEANINGDon’t make someone angry or hurt someone who is helping you or paying for you
EXAMPLE“You had a fight with your boss? Are you stupid? Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
13PROVERBDon’t count your chickens before they hatch.
MEANINGDon’t expect a positive result before you actually see it
EXAMPLEA: “This idea is going to make me millions of dollars!”
B: “Whoa. Let’s slow down. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
14PROVERBDon’t judge a book by its cover
MEANINGDon’t judge someone or something by appearance alone
EXAMPLE“Racism is still a problem today, and it will continue to be that way until we learn not to judge a book by its cover.”
15PROVERBDon’t put all of your eggs in one basket
MEANINGDon’t put all of your hopes and resources into one goal or dream
EXAMPLE“I know you really want to be an actor, but don’t you think you’re being financially irresponsible? Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”
16PROVERBDon’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today
MEANINGIf you can do something today, do it. Don’t wait until tomorrow; don’t procrastinate.
EXAMPLE“You have 6 hours of free time now. You should start on that final psychology assignment. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
17PROVERBDon’t put too many irons in the fire
MEANINGDon’t try to do too many things at the same time; focus on one thing at a time
EXAMPLE“No wonder you’re exhausted. You’re trying to work 4 jobs at the same time! You have too many irons in the fire right now.”
18PROVERBEasy come, easy go
MEANINGWhen you make money quickly, it’s very easy to lose it quickly as well
EXAMPLE“I won $200 at the casino, and then I spent it on a very expensive meal for me and some friends. Easy come, easy go.”
19PROVERBFortune favors the bold
MEANINGPeople who are brave and who take risks are more successful than people who are do things safely all the time
EXAMPLE“It’s a risk, but the reward could be great. I say you go for it. Fortune favors the bold.”
20PROVERBGod helps those who help themselves
MEANINGDon’t just wait for good things to happen to you. Work hard to make them happen
EXAMPLE“If you want a better life, you can’t just sit on your butt thinking about it. You have to work to make it happen. God helps those who help themselves.”
21PROVERBGood things come to those who wait
MEANINGIf you are patient, good things can happen
EXAMPLE“I know you’re hungry, but stop being so impatient. We just ordered our food. Good things come to those who wait.”
22PROVERBHonesty is the best policy
MEANINGIt’s always better to tell the truth than it is to lie
EXAMPLE“If you want people to trust you, you need to be honest with them. Honesty is the best policy.”
23PROVERBHope for the best, prepare for the worst
MEANINGIn any situation, be optimistic about the result, but always be ready for the worst outcome
EXAMPLE“We’re going on vacation next week. It’s supposed to rain a lot, so we’re bringing our umbrellas and a bunch of board games. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
24PROVERBIf it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
MEANINGIf something is already working well, don’t try to change it or improve it
EXAMPLE“Why are you trying to upgrade your PC again? It was working fine before. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
25PROVERBIf you can’t beat ’em, join ’em
MEANINGIf you can’t change someone’s behavior or opinion, sometimes it’s better or easier to do what they want to do
EXAMPLE“I told Mark that we needed to study, but he kept playing video games. Eventually I gave up and just played video games too. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
26PROVERBIf you play with fire, you’ll get burned
MEANINGIf you get involved in something dangerous or beyond your abilities, you will probably experience negative consequences
EXAMPLE“Don’t make him angry. If you play with fire, you’ll get burned.”
27PROVERBIf you want something done right, you have to do it yourself
MEANINGDon’t depend on someone else to do a good job; do it yourself
EXAMPLE“I asked my roommate to wash the dishes, but they ended up super filthy! I guess it’s true what they say: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”
28PROVERBKeep your friends close, and your enemies closer
MEANINGIf someone is your enemy, treat them like a friend so you can be ready if they ever try to betray you
EXAMPLE“We don’t trust each other, but we have to be nice to each other because we work for the same company. I’m worried about him stealing my promotion, so I’m going to keep being nice to him. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, and all that.”
29PROVERBKnowledge is power
MEANINGThe more you know, the more powerful you can be in different areas of your life
EXAMPLE“When we were kids, our parents taught us how to swim. That knowledge helped me to save my cousin’s life when he was 5 years old. Knowledge is power.”
30PROVERBLaughter is the best medicine.
MEANINGWhen you’re in a difficult situation, laughing can make it easier to get through that situation
EXAMPLE“I’m sorry to hear about your dog. Want to watch a funny movie? Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine.”
31PROVERBLike father, like son
MEANINGSaid when a son is similar to his father; also, “Like mother, like daughter”
EXAMPLE“Ryan started playing hockey at a very young age. He’s just like his dad. Like father, like son.”
32PROVERBNo man is an island
MEANINGNo one is truly capable of living alone. We need human connection to be healthy
EXAMPLE“You can’t just abandon your friends and family. No man is an island.”
33PROVERBPeople who live in glass houses should not throw stones
MEANINGDon’t criticize someone if you’re not perfect either; don’t be a hyprocrite
EXAMPLE“Why are you always bothering her about being addicted to her phone? You’ve been smoking for 20 years and haven’t been able to give it up. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
34PROVERBPractice makes perfect
MEANINGThe more you do something, the better you will become at it
EXAMPLE“Don’t give up on learning the violin. Practice makes perfect.”
35PROVERBThe early bird gets the worm
MEANINGPeople who wake up early or who get to places early have a better chance of success
EXAMPLE“I got to the ticket office before anyone else. I got front row seats to the show! The early bird gets the worm.”
36PROVERBThe enemy of my enemy is my friend
MEANINGIf someone whom I don’t like doesn’t like someone else whom I don’t like, we can act like friends and unite against the other person (common in war)
EXAMPLE“I don’t like you, you don’t like me. But I think we can agree that we both HATE Daniel. Let’s work together and get him fired! The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?”
37PROVERBThe grass is always greener on the other side
MEANINGPeople always want what they don’t have
EXAMPLEA: “I’m jealous of all the free time my single friends have.”
B: “Yeah, but your friends are probably jealous of you too in some ways. The grass is always greener on the other side.”
38PROVERBThe pen is mightier than the sword
MEANINGIf you’re trying to convince someone of something, words and ideas are stronger than using physical force (common in politics)
EXAMPLE“We must avoid this war and use diplomacy to solve our problems. The pen is mightier than the sword.”
39PROVERBThere is no place like home
MEANINGYour home is the most comfortable place in the world
EXAMPLE“What a tiring vacation! I’m glad to be back in my own bed again. There’s no place like home.”
40PROVERBThere is no such thing as a free lunch.
MEANINGNothing is free. Even the things that are free have a hidden cost
EXAMPLE“His bank gave him $50 for free, but he had to commit to opening a credit card account. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
41PROVERBThere is no time like the present
MEANINGDon’t wait to do something. Do it now.
EXAMPLE“Why don’t you stop talking about needing to call your mom? Just CALL her! There is no time like the present.”
42PROVERBThe squeaky wheel gets the grease
MEANINGThe person who complains in a situation is more likely to get something.
EXAMPLEA: “I just don’t understand why she’s received so many promotions, and I’m still at the bottom of the company!”
B: “She complains a lot. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
43PROVERBTime is money
MEANINGDon’t waste your time or other people’s time; also, if you can use your time to make money in some way, you should do that.
EXAMPLE“Hurry up! Time is money!”
44PROVERBTwo heads are better than one
MEANINGIt’s easier to do something as a team than by yourself
EXAMPLE“I’m stuck on this project. Can you help me out? Two heads are better than one.”
45PROVERBTwo wrongs don’t make a right
MEANINGTrying to get revenge on someone who has hurt you will only make things worse
EXAMPLE“I know she made you angry, but did you have to steal her phone? Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
46PROVERBWhen in Rome, do as the Romans do
MEANINGWhen you are in a new place or situation, try to act like the majority of people in that place or situation.
EXAMPLEA: “You’ve been eating a lot of bread and cheese on this Paris vacation.”
B: “Hey, when in Rome.”
47PROVERBWhen the going gets tough, the tough get going
MEANINGWhen a situation becomes difficult, strong people don’t give up; they work harder
EXAMPLE“My great grandfather survived the Great Depression. You know the phrase, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going?’ That was my great grandfather.”
48PROVERBWhere there’s smoke, there’s fire
MEANINGIf something seems wrong, it probably is; also, there is usually some truth to a rumor
EXAMPLE“Matilda came to school with a black eye today. She cried when I asked her about it after class and didn’t want to say anything about her parents. I don’t want to speculate too much, but where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.”
49PROVERBYou can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it
MEANINGYou can try to help someone by giving good advice, but you can’t force them to accept it or follow it
EXAMPLE“She tried to help her brother find a job by improving his resume, but he didn’t do anything with it. I guess you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it.”
50PROVERBYou can’t always get what you want
MEANINGDon’t complain if you don’t get what you want
EXAMPLEA: I really wanted to see that movie, but I didn’t have enough money last week
B: It happens. You can’t always get what you want, right?

When I was little, I used to have a book with a collection of Russian proverbs and sayings.  I remember being absolutely fascinated by the depth of knowledge and wisdom that I discovered on the pages of that book.  Those proverbs opened a door for me to a better understanding of the Russian culture as well as important norms, morals, and life values.  Indeed, I can say they helped me become a more mature and intelligent human being.

Speaking about second language learners: Proverbs can—like in my own experience—help them learn a great deal about the target culture and the norms and values that people in that culture respect and treasure.  A writing class  is a great venue for incorporating proverbs into teaching.  With the effective use of proverbs, a teacher can both help students develop their writing skills and deepen their cultural knowledge.  In other words, the use of proverbs kills two birds with one stone!

I want to share some activities that teachers can do in the writing classroom.  Hopefully, they can inspire you to further ideas.

Using Proverbs as In-Class Journal Prompts

When I was teaching a writing class in an intensive English program, part of my weekly routine was having students write, twice a week, a 10-minute in-class journal.  The prompts for these activities were prepared in advance, and were created to help students develop their creativity and analytical thinking.  Proverbs seem to make excellent prompts for in-class journals.  I suggest, however, that you select the proverbs with transparent rather than metaphorical meanings.  Before the actual writing activity, you can also briefly explain the meaning of the proverb to help students move their thoughts in the right direction.

Here are some proverbs that you can use as journal prompts:

  • A friend in need is a friend indeed.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Bad news travels fast.
  • Better late than never.
  • Better safe than sorry.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Never too old to learn.
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • Practice what you preach.
  • Two heads are better than one.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Writing a Story That Illustrates a Proverb

For this activity, you need to select several proverbs with metaphorical meanings.  After you explain the meanings of those proverbs and briefly discuss them with the students, ask them to pick one proverb and write a short story or a passage that would illustrate the meaning of the proverb they picked.  Then each student will read their story and the rest of the class will try to guess the proverb.

Here are some proverbs that you can use for this activity:

  • A watched pot never boils.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  • Easy come, easy go.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.
  • Give someone an inch, he/she will take a mile.
  • Look before you leap.
  • Still waters run deep. 
  • The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
  • The early bird gets the worm.
  • There are plenty of other fish in the sea.
  • There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
  • To kill two birds with one stone.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  • We will cross that bridge when we get to it.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • When it rains, it pours.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Teaching About the Rhetorical Situation

The concept of rhetorical situation is not easy to grasp for second language learners.  You can help students gain a better understanding of purpose, audience, and stance by implementing a simple writing activity with the use of proverbs.  For this activity, you should choose one proverb and ask the students to write a story or a short passage illustrating the meaning of the proverb (just like in the activity described above).  Then each student will read his or her piece and the rest of the class will analyze it in terms of its rhetorical situation.  The following questions will help the students analyze the rhetorical situation:

  • What is the writer’s purpose?
  • What is the writer’s stance in this piece?  
  • Who is the audience? 
  • What is the basic impression that the author wants to convey? 
  • What do you think the writer wants the audience to do based on this passage? 

To further help students with the concept of rhetorical situation, you can also discuss the differences between the students’ passages.  The students will be able to see that although they all wrote about the same proverb, their passages/stories are quite different because of the differences in their rhetorical situations.

Practicing Argumentative Skills

Since many proverbs contain arguable points (e.g., Don’t judge a book by its cover; Honesty is the best policy; Better late than never), they can also be used to help students develop their argumentative skills.  You can simply ask the students to express their agreement or disagreement with the meaning of the selected proverb and provide convincing pieces of evidence to defend their position.

There are certainly many other stimulating and interactive activities that writing teachers can do to help their students develop their writing skills and learninteresting and useful facts about the target culture.  Please feel free to share your ideas with us!

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.

View all posts by Elena Shvidko →

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