A Short Guide to English Proverbs

Proverbs are among my favourite aspects of the English language, both to use and to teach. Many students have asked what the difference is between an idiom and a proverb. Both make the language colorful in terms of using imagery to express an idea, but there is one fundamental difference. Idioms are phrases generally used within a sentence (although they can form short but complete sentences), whereas proverbs are always complete sentences of their own and so they have a sense of a complete idea.

If we were talking about trying to be optimistic in bad situations, for example suffering from a bad illness, we might say something like:

‘I couldn’t get out of bed for a week because I felt so awful, but today I got up and even went out for a short walk. I think I can finally ‘see the light at the end of a tunnel’, an idiom used within a sentence and a wonderful piece of imagery that brings to mind a long, lonely journey through a dark tunnel with the light representing hope, a possible escape from this situation.

You could also use a proverb. In my own recent experience, I had a quite debilitating illness for about 10 days, which made me feel awful at the time and also sapped (took away) all my energy. When I recovered, I suddenly realized that I felt better than I had before I’d had the illness. I’d been overworking as usual, and the time of the illness had been the rest that my body and mind had needed. In this case, you might say:

‘Every cloud has a silver lining’

This is another piece of imagery, that something negative like a cloud has a lining (covering) of something positive like silver. I would like to note that usually in English expressions, the sun is good while rain and clouds are considered negative, and the weather is often used to show quality and mood. Gold and silver are always good.

In short, proverbs are observations about the world or human behaviour, usually offered as advice. These truths often have a universal quality and have been known and believed for a long time. This is why I sometimes associate proverbs with a wise old man or woman, perhaps even your grandparents, giving you pieces of wisdom in short sentences that will help you navigate that difficult and complex thing called life.

Some proverbs go back centuries, such as the ancient Chinese one that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

To give a personal anecdote again, I started writing my first book last year. Anyone who has tried to do this can tell you that when you are starting, it is extremely daunting to imagine getting to the end of this long process. When I asked people for advice, they all told me to just start writing. In other words, take that first step and concentrate on each step rather than the ‘thousand miles’ you still have to complete.

This can also be inspiring when we are talking about activism, trying to change society for the better. The world is so enormous and the problems so many that it seems impossible to make profound changes, but making that first step, and each one after it, is the way to keep going and not feel daunted.

If you are on some kind of journey, either actual or metaphorical, and you encounter problems that you know you’ll have to face and deal with in the long term, you might want to use the advice that ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’.

If we use our book/activism analogies again, that might be to find a publisher after you’ve written your book or to try and find funding (money) for a project that will help people in poorer countries.

As with idioms and other expressions in English, there are far too many proverbs to cover them all so I will pick a few favorites and offer situations where you can use them.

‘You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’  try it now Bharat Result is a nice piece of life advice that says that you shouldn’t judge people by their outward appearance or status. I had a window cleaner for years, who I always liked but never really had much conversation with.

When I finally started chatting with him, he turned out to be one of the wisest and most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met, despite his low-status job and quite scruffy appearance.

To understand ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, I want you to picture lots of expert chefs in a kitchen, maybe all from different countries, and they are all working together to make broth, which is basically a thin, clear soup that is the water left after you boil meat, fish or vegetables.

You can imagine that all their different ideas and years of experience, not to mention big egos, would make this simple task too complicated and cause conflict. Therefore, the advice is not to involve too many people in tasks or projects unless it is completely necessary.

‘The grass is always greener (on the other side)’ is a proverb that expresses quite a fundamental part of human nature. If you’ve had a hard week at work and decided to spend Saturday afternoon gardening, you might feel proud of your garden after you’ve spent time making it look nice.

However, when you look over your fence at your neighbor’s garden to compare it with yours, you might decide that his garden looks better, his grass greener than yours. We, humans, tend to look at what other people have got, especially those in our close proximity, and feel envious and want it ourselves.

If we stick with this theme of homes and neighbors, we can also observe that ‘A man’s home is his castle’, which may date from the American Bill of Rights in terms of the right to own property, but also expresses the idea that people become proud of their homes and want to protect them from intruders.

If you do have trouble with your neighbors (or anyone else close to you) and start to criticize or attack them, be careful because you may find that you have the same faults and that they can attack you back. ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’.

I’d like to leave you with a couple that can be applied to language learning. First of all, I DON’T agree with the proverb that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. I actually taught my grandmother to use the internet and set up an email account when she was nearly 90! For those starting a language at a mature age, it’s true that you may not process and absorb the language as quickly as a child or young person might, but attitude is everything. A lot of apparent inability to do things comes from fear and negative thoughts. You can ‘learn new tricks’ at any age!

Finally, I advise you to ‘strike while the iron is hot’. Just as iron is easier to penetrate and shape when it’s softened by heating, it’s much easier to study and learn when you are feeling in the mood and energised. So when the right time arrives, make the most of it and put in a good study session.

The world of proverbs is a fascinating one and studying them will both add to your language skills and also teach you a few life lessons on the way.

Good luck!

This article was written by Break Into English’s online teacher and blog contributor, Anthony Rotunno.

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