English proverbs: Examples and meanings

Have you ever been talking to a friend, who just happens to be a native English speaker, and they say something totally random and out of the blue, but it is sort of fitting in a poetic type of way? No? Just me? Ok, what if I give you an example? Maybe then, you will be able to remember a time of when something like this might have happened.

You: Come on, let’s go to the party tonight!

Friend: I can’t I have to help my mom out.

You: Can’t you just do that later?

Friend: No, my hands are tied.

No, your friend’s hands are not literally tied, this is just how proverbs in English work; it simply means that there is nothing your friend can do. Your friend is stuck in his/her current situation. So, figuratively, your friend’s hands are tied.

Whew! I know that you may still be confused, but remember, you’ve only read the intro so far! If you want to fully understand English proverbs, keep reading. I promise you, it gets better!

What is a proverb, and why do you need to know them?

Well, to start, a proverb is a simple, popular or traditional saying that expresses a perceived truth, which is based on common sense or experience. Proverbs are usually figurative and give advice about life, but not always.
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Now, why do you need to know them? Isn’t it always a good idea to expand your knowledge, go forth, and learn? Well yeah, but also, proverbs are very common in spoken English, so it’s a good idea to get aquatinted with them. It may be awkward if you find yourself in a situation where you take a figurative proverb, literally. Learning proverbs in English with their meanings and explanations will ensure that you are never in one of those award situations. Yes, even if you do not learn them all, just learning a few, and the style of proverbs can help you in the future. You should be able to determine if something is a proverb or not just by knowing what a proverb is, which you now know, and by the context of the conversation you’re having.

Famous proverbs in English that you need to learn

Like I mentioned, proverbs are pretty important in the English language. I mean, every culture has its own wise sayings, but not all translate well into English. So, it is important to learn at least a few in English. In fact, I would say that I hear proverbs in conversation quite regularly, almost daily. That being said, let’s take a look at some common English proverbs with meanings and examples.

Famous English proverbs:

  1. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
    • Meaning: When someone wrongs you somehow, doing something wrong back to them, in a revengeful manner, will only make things worse.
    • Example: My boyfriend cheated on me, but two wrongs don’t make a right, so I will just end things peacefully.
  2. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
    • Meaning: Act the way other people around you are acting. This proverb is extremely common when traveling, You may want to experience another culture and the best way to do that is full immersion.
    • Example: I have never tried squid before, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
  3. “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
    • Meaning: forcing someone to do what you want them to do is not as effective as trying to convince them with words and ideas.
    • Example: Man, I wish my boss would listen to me before half of our team quits; he needs to know that his pen is mightier than the sword.
  4. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
    • Meaning: People who are strong-minded do not give up when they encounter challenges, they just work even harder.
    • Example: I have failed this exam three times already, but I will not give up because when the going gets tough, the tough get going!
  5. “Fortune favors the bold.”
    • Meaning: Success comes from being brave and going after what you want, not by living safely.
    • Example: I’m about to embark on this new career. I’m nervous, but fortune favors the bold, right?

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    American proverbs

    1. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
      • Meaning: If you don’t initiate something, and take the first step, you won’t get to your goal. * Since omelets are a popular American breakfast, and of course, cannot be made without breaking an egg first, think of this proverb like this… The breaking of the egg is your first step, and eating the delicious omelet is your goal.
      • Example: I’ve been thinking about writing my own book. I don’t know if can do it, but my mama has always told me that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs first.
    2. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
      • Meaning: Don’t put all you have (effort, time, money) into one thing because if it doesn’t work out, you will be left with nothing (broken eggs).
      • Example: I’m planning on going to Berkeley, as it is my first college of choice, but I don’t want to put all my eggs into one basket.
    3. “Don’t count your chickens until they hatch.”Anyone else slowly noticing some kind of breakfast-associated pattern here? Hmm, strange. Moving on…
      • Meaning: Until something actually occurs, don’t assume that it will.
      • Example: Susan is qualified for the position, and she’s the only one who applied, but she doesn’t want to count her chickens until they hatch.
    4. “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”
      • Meaning: Don’t make a small incident turn into a big ordeal.
      • Example: Davis gets angry too easily; I constantly have to tell him to stop making mountains out of molehills.
    5. “There are plenty more fish in the sea.”
      • Backstory: This proverb needs a little bit of backstory as it is mainly used to cheer someone up after a breakup.
      • Meaning: Don’t worry because there plenty of other potential partners out in the world.
      • Example: I’m sorry James broke up with you, but hey, there are plenty more fish in the sea.


    Handy proverbs

    1. “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
      • Meaning: Do not be jealous of what others have. You may think your neighbor has a better life than you, but who knows, maybe your neighbor thinks the same.
      • Example: Did you see Jennifer’s new Tesla? Wow, I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.
    2. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
      • Meaning: Things are not always what they seem to be. A boring, or plain, book cover doesn’t necessarily mean the actual book is boring, right?
      • Example: When I first met my husband, he was a filthy stranger who had forgotten his wallet. I thought he was homeless, but I didn’t judge a book by its cover. I helped him out, and turns out, he was a mechanic that had left his wallet at work. Now look at us, we are married with two kids!
    3. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
      • Meaning: If you have two opposite goals or desires, it is impossible to achieve them both.
      • I want to try every food there possibly is to try, I love food, but I also want to treat my body well and eat healthily. I guess I can’t have my cake and eat it too.
    4. “You can’t have the best of both worlds.”
      • Meaning: Similar to the above “you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” the just means you cannot have two opposite things at the same time.
      • Example: I want the continence of living in a big city, but I hate the traffic; I can’t have the best of both worlds.
    5. “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it.”
      • Meaning: Don’t worry until you have to.
      • Example: I have so many things that need to be done after we move, but I can’t cross that bridge until we get to it.


To summarize, American proverbs and their meanings are quite simple to notice and quite easy to use. Just know that, for the most part, proverbs are usually figurative sayings and not literal. Also, as we’ve learned here, proverbs are often wise sayings, and they are a great way to give helpful advice to others. Proverbs sometimes provoke thought too, which can be helpful when a friend needs advice. Now that you have more information on proverbs, what they are, and why you need to know them, I encourage you to start using more proverbs in your everyday conversation. After all, the best way to learn is through doing.

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