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56 Common English Proverbs (We Still Use Today)

A proverb is a short, well-known saying that contains advice. Native speakers often use proverbs to express a bigger idea in a shorter sentence or phrase. English proverbs can teach you a lot about British mentality, culture and history. These colourful expressions are useful if you are improving your English beyond Intermediate level. In this guide, we’ll teach your 56 of the most popular proverbs still used today!

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Which proverbs should I learn?

The problem with proverbs is that they are easy to misuse and students often learn outdated proverbs from old English textbooks. It’s important to know what expressions Brits and Americans actually use today. That’s why we’ve made this list of common proverbs that we use in daily conversation. Don’t forget to check out the interactive exercises at the end to test your knowledge!

List of the most popular English proverbs

1. A bad workman always blames his tools

When someone blames their tools for doing a bad job rather than accepting the blame themself.

A: I wasn’t able to upload my homework as my internet connection was bad.
B: You know what they say, a bad workman blames his tools! Everybody else managed to hand it in on time.

2. A leopard can’t change its spots

People can’t change their personality, especially their more negative characteristics.

Michael said he would never cheat on his girlfriend again, but you know what they say – a leopard can’t change its spots!

3. Actions speak louder than words

Put more value on someone’s actions or behaviour than their words or promises. It is often easier to say that you will do something than to actually do it.

I will wait and see if he improves his test score before rewarding him, actions speak louder than words.

4. All work and no play (makes Jack a dull boy)

Working constantly and not taking time for recreation or ‘play’ will make the person boring.

A: I can’t come to the concert I’m afraid – I’ve got to do some extra work.

B: Again?! You know what they say – all work and no play…!

5. Beggars can’t be choosers

If you are in a position where you are asking for help, you are not in a position to be picky, in fact, you should take what you are offered.

Melanie asked for a free ticket and then complained about the seat being too high up. I told her that beggars can’t be choosers!

6. Better late than never

It is always better to arrive or do something late than not at all.

Ah, here comes Beth ten minutes late to the meeting – better late than never though I suppose! 

There are some funny modern proverbs in English. For example: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. This basically means that women are perfectly fine on their own, without men. This modern proverb was created by a prominent feminist who used humour to make her point about female independence.

7. Better safe than sorry

It is better to invest time and effort in preparing for something than to suffer the consequences if or when things go wrong.

I’m glad I invested in a good waterproof (coat) for the hike now that it’s chucking it down (raining hard) – better safe than sorry!

8. Blood is thicker than water

Family is more important than friends or acquaintances.

I would always choose my family over my friends – blood is thicker than water!

9. Cross that bridge when you come to it

Don’t waste time worrying about an issue until it arises or happens. It also implies that a problem can be dealt with better when you know what it is, rather than trying to guess ahead of time.

There’s no point in us trying to decide what we’ll do if they decide to close down the Post Office – we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it! We have a lot to be getting on with right now.

10. Curiosity killed the cat

This is often used to stop someone asking too many questions. It implies that asking too many questions could lead to trouble.

I’d be careful how many questions you ask him about his time in prison. Curiosity killed the cat, you know!

11. (Don’t) bite off more than you can chew

This advises us to make sure that we have the energy to deal with something before we take it on. To say yes to work that you don’t have the time, skills or energy for.

Maria will have to postpone her doctorate while she is so busy with her job and looking after a new-born baby – it seems she has bitten off more than she can chew!

12. (Don’t) blow your own trumpet

You should try to avoid showing off to others about your achievements.

I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but I’m really pleased with how good my painting is!

13. (Don’t) bury your head in the sand

To refuse to accept the truth about something.

I don’t think John has really moved on after the break up – he’s just burying his head in the sand. I wish he’d start dating again.

14. Don’t count your chickens (till they are hatched)

To avoid disappointment, don’t rely on something good happening until it has actually happened.

I wouldn’t buy the furniture until you’ve signed for the house – don’t count your chickens just yet!

15. (Don’t) cut off your nose to spite your face

Don’t do something to hurt someone else that actually ends up hurting you.

Don’t cancel your holiday to punish the kids for misbehaving, you’ll end up cutting off your nose to spite your face!

16. (Don’t) judge a book by its cover

You shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance.

My neighbour is a heavily tattooed man who wears metal chains in his face and all black clothes, but he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met! It’s like they say, don’t judge a book…!

17. (Don’t) make a mountain out of a molehill

Don’t make a huge problem out of a small issue.

A: I went for a haircut and he chopped off two whole inches!
B: Oh, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill – it’ll grow back in no time!

18. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

It would be unwise to focus all of your efforts or invest all of your money into one thing. It is more sensible to divide your efforts or money up into more than one opportunity in case one fails.

He invested all of his life earnings into one tip on the stock market and lost all of his money. You know what they say – don’t put all your eggs in one basket!

19. Every cloud (has a silver lining)

There are always good things to be found in each bad situation if you are willing to look.

I was so upset when I heard that my landlord is selling the flat, but I found an even better place that is much closer to my work and has a fantastic gym – every cloud…!

20. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile

If you allow people to take advantage of you once, they will continue to do so more.

I said Ben could use my coffee machine once, now he always using it. If you give them an inch…!

21. Good things come to those who wait

If you wait patiently for something you want, you will eventually get it.

A: He’s been doing the lottery for more than 20 years and finally won big!
B: I guess good things come to those who wait!

22. (You can’t) have your cake and eat it too

To have the best of both worlds or to enjoy the advantages of two things that should not exist together.

Rachel is getting married to Ricardo while still having an affair with Wayne – you can’t have your cake and eat it too!

23. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

If something is working, there’s no need to change or update it.

I’ve been using the same computer for 15 years and it still does the job – as they say, if it ain’t broke…

24. If you can’t beat them, join them

If you aren’t able to do better than your opponent, you might as well cooperate with them.

I didn’t make much money as a freelance journalist so I decided to get a job with a local newspaper. If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

25. If you play with fire, you get burned

Used when someone who was involved in a dangerous or problematic situation gets in trouble.

Charlene’s in the headmaster’s office after getting caught cheating on her maths exam. If you play with fire…!

26. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours

If you do something for me, I’ll return the favour.

If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Get me an interview with your boss and I’ll lend you my Porsche next weekend.

27. Ignorance is bliss

You will be happier not knowing the facts. A good example of this is the red pill in the film The Matrix.

Joan doesn’t know that her dad got her the job at M & S, she thinks she got it by herself. As they say, ignorance is bliss!

28. It never rains, but it pours

When one bad thing happens, it is always followed by more bad events.

First I got caught in a storm, then I got a flat tyre and now I’ve got a parking fine on top – it never rains, but it pours!

28. It takes two to tango

When two people are involved in a tricky situation the blame should be split equally.

Sally says that it was all Peter’s fault but, you know what they say, it takes two to tango!

29. It’s not over till the fat lady sings

Don’t assume the outcome of a situation until it has actually ended.

Beckham surprised us all with a goal in the ninety-third minute! No one could have predicted it. It goes to show, it’s not over till the fat lady sings!

30. Less is more

When it comes to how things look, a minimalist approach is often more effective.

The website looks too busy. I think we should remove some text – less is more!

31. Let sleeping dogs lie

Avoid bringing up an issue that is currently causing no problems.

I wanted to tell the neighbours that their son had a loud party last weekend while they were away, but I thought it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.

32. Money doesn’t grow on trees

Money is often acquired through hard work and therefore shouldn’t be spent wastefully.

Those jeans you want would cost me a week’s wages – money doesn’t grow on trees, you know?!

33. No news is good news

Usually used to tell someone who is waiting for some news to remain optimistic.

We haven’t heard back from the doctor about the test results. No news is good news as far as I’m concerned!

34. No pain, no gain

You can’t get the benefits of something without putting in some strenuous effort.

I can’t walk properly today aften the long run I did yesterday, but no pain no gain, I guess!

35. No use crying over spilt milk

This means that it is a waste of time to regret something that has already taken place. Spilt milk cannot be “un-spilt”.

A: I’m so upset with myself for crashing your car!
B: Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk – let’s go and take a look at the damage.

36. Once bitten, twice shy

When you are cautious about something/someone because you were hurt by it/them previously.

A: Since I fell off the skateboard and cut my leg open, I’ve been scared to get back on.
B: Once bitten, twice shy, right?

37. Out of sight, out of mind

It is easy to forget about someone/something if you don’t see them for a period of time.

A: I haven’t even thought about that idiot Sandra since I saw her at the party.
B: You know what they say – out of sight, out of mind!

38. Practice makes perfect

The more you practise something, the better you will become at it.

A: John’s been going to German classes for about a year and he’s finally getting the hang of it!
B: Yep, practice makes perfect.

39. Practise what you preach

You should behave in the same way that you tell others to behave.

You can’t tell your kids not to lie and then lie to them yourself! You should practise what you preach if you want them to grow up right.

40. Rome wasn’t built in a day

Good results take time to achieve – you should not rush a job at the expense of quality.

I know that you want to complete this deal, but I don’t want to rush it through – Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know!

41. Strike while the iron is hot

For best results, take advantage of an opportunity as soon as it appears.

You should put an offer in on that house now if you want to buy it – strike while the iron is hot!

This proverb originally came from blacksmiths (who work with metal). They strike the iron with a hammer when it’s red hot because this makes it easier to shape into tools and other objects.

42. The early bird catches the worm

Arriving earlier for an appointment or event will likely lead to a more successful result.

A: How did you manage to get hold of those trainers? I thought they’d sell out in ten minutes!
B: I waited outside the Nike store since 6am. Early bird catches the worm!

43. The end justifies the means

A good result justifies the way that you got the result, even if the method was unfair.

The Police officer tricked the criminal into admitting the truth – sometimes the end justifies the means!

44. The grass is always greener (on the other side)

What other people have can often seem more desirable than what you have.

A: I wish I’d chosen French over German – their class seems way more fun.
B: The grass is always greener! They’re probably thinking the same about us.

45. The proof is in the pudding

Even if something looks great from the outside, you can’t really know the result until you try it.

They seem to have done a really good job on the new Mazda 300 – but as they say, the proof is in the pudding! I’m looking forward to taking it for a spin when it’s finally released next month.

46. There is no smoke without fire

If there are rumours about someone or something, there’s usually a good reason for it.

A: Have you heard that the Prime Minister has been accused of having parties during lockdown?

B: No smoke without fire, I reckon!

We often introduce a proverb by saying: “You know what they say…” or “As they say…”. This is a great way to highlight the fact that you are about to use a proverb.

47. Too many cooks (spoil the broth)

If there are too many people working on a project, the results can be messy or even disastrous.

There were five of us working together on the painting and the result was an absolute mess – too many cooks…

48. Two heads are better than one

You will have more success working together with someone on a project than doing it on your own.

Do you think you could give me a hand with writing my proposal for work? I’m struggling with the wording and two heads are better than one!

49. Two wrongs don’t make a right

Doing wrong to someone who has done wrong to you doesn’t make you innocent.

A: I can’t believe I’m being punished for taking her book when she stole my tablet!
B: I’m afraid two wrongs don’t make a right.

50. What goes around comes around

If you do wrong, you will be wronged in the future. Karma!

My boss is in trouble for not paying his taxes – what goes around comes around.

51. When in Rome (do as the Romans do)

You should follow the culture of the place you are visiting. Whether that be a country or neighbourhood, it is wise to follow the local customs.

When on holiday in France we tend to have a glass of wine with our lunch – as they say, when in Rome…!

52. Where there’s a will, there’s a way

If you really want to do something, you will find a way to do it even if it’s difficult.

They told the film star he’d never make it in Hollywood, but where there’s a will there’s a way!

53. While the cat’s away, the mice will play

Without the supervision of the person in charge, the subordinates will take advantage and do what they want.

I noticed that the whole office clocked off early today as the boss is on holiday – when the cat’s away…!

54. You can have too much of a good thing

If you have too much of something that is normally good or beneficial, it can become bad in excess.

I’ve eaten so much birthday cake I feel sick – too much of a good thing, right?!

55. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

You can show someone how to do something or make it easy for them, but you can’t force them to do it.

The chef put some healthy recipes on the menu, but most of the pupils still opted for fries – you can lead a horse to water…!

56. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

It is hard to change someone’s habit if they have been doing it a certain way for a long time.

We bought our oldest waiter a top of the range tablet to take orders, but he still insists on using his notepad – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I suppose!

English proverbs: Exercises

Exercise 1: Fill in the missing word
  1. The proof is in the __________.
    a.     Pie
    b.     Pizza
    c.     Pudding
  2. Strike while the _________ is hot.
    a.     Iron
    b.     Metal
    c.     Steel
  3. There’s no _____________ without fire.
    a.     Flames
    b.     Smoke
    c.     Warmth
  4.  While the _______’s away the mice will play.
    a.     Boss
    b.     Wife
    c.     Cat
  5. A leopard can’t change its ________.
    a.     Stripes
    b.     Spots
    c.     Fur
  6. No __________ is good ____________.
    a.     Information
    b.     New
    c.     News
  7. Every __________ has a silver lining.
    a.     Cloud
    b.     Situation
    c.     Coat
  8. Give them an _______ and they’ll take a mile.
    a.     Foot
    b.     Metre
    c.     Inch
  9. Too many cooks spoils the ___________.
    a.     Broth
    b.     Soup
    c.     Sauce
  10. Rome wasn’t built in a __________.
    a.     Week
    b.     Year
    c.     Day
  11. Don’t count you chickens, before they ___________.
    a.     Arrive
    b.     Hatch
    c.     Are cooked
  12. Don’t make a mountain, out of a ________________.
    a.     Mouse
    b.     Stone
    c.     Molehill
  13. Curiosity _____________ the cat.
    a.     Killed
    b.     Murdered
    c.     Confused
  14. ______________ is thicker than water.
    a.     Milk
    b.     Soup
    c.     Blood
  15. Don’t cut off your ___________ to spite your face.
    a.     Ears
    b.     Nose
    c.     Cheeks
Exercise 2: Reorder the proverb
  1. workman / blames / always / a / bad / tools /his
  2. chew / off / than / bite / more / you / don’t / can
  3. things / who / come / to / those / wait / good
  4. on / money / grow / trees / doesn’t
  5. worm / bird / the / early / catches / the
  6. in / when / do / the / Romans / as / Rome / do
  7. a / where / will, / there’s / a /there’s / way
  8. justifies / the / end / the /means
  9. than / actions / louder / speak / words
  10. you / have / too / can / much / of / thing / a / good
  11. wrongs / right / two / don’t /a / make
  12. play / all / no / work / makes / boy / dull / Jack / a / and
  13. choosers / can’t / be / beggars
  14. late / never / better / than
  15. bury / your / don’t / head / sand / the / in
Exercise 3: Match the 2 halves to make a full proverb
  1. If you scratch my back …
  2. Cross that bridge …
  3. Don’t judge a book …
  4. What goes around …
  5. You can lead a horse to water …
  6. The grass is always greener …
  7. Once bitten …
  8. Don’t bury…
  9. No pain …
  10. Out of sight …
  11. Two wrongs…
  12. Don’t blow …
  13. Ignorance …
  14. If it ain’t broke …
  15. Better safe …
  1. don’t fix it
  2. is bliss
  3. don’t make a right
  4. when we get to it
  5. comes around
  6. on the other side
  7. your head in the sand
  8. out of mind
  9. I’ll scratch yours
  10. by it’s cover
  11. but you can’t make it drink
  12. twice shy
  13. no gain
  14. than sorry
  15. your own trumpet

 

Exercise 4:  Look at each situation below and choose the correct proverb to respond:
  1. Do you think Ed is to blame or Marie?
    A) It takes two to tango
    B) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
    C) You can’t have your cake and eat it too
  2. Mum shouted at me for eating her chocolate.
    A) It never rains, it pours
    B) If you play with fire, you’ll get burnt
    C) Two heads is better than one
  3. After he lost the game, Ben missed the bus home and then it started to chuck it down.
    A)  Less is more
    B) Practise what you preach
    C) It never rains, but it pours
  4. My children are allowed 30 minutes of social media everyday but I find I use it way more than that, should I cut down?
    A) Yeah, practise what you preach
    B) Yes, practice makes perfect
    C) Yup, if you play with fire, you’ll get burnt
  5. How will I ever get to be on the basketball team?
    A) It takes two to tango
    B) It never rains, it pours
    C) Practice makes perfect
  6. Can you help me solve this quiz? I’m really struggling.
    A) Two heads is better than one
    B) If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
    C) Less is more
  7. I dropped the spaghetti on the white carpet!
    A) Practice makes perfect
    B) There’s no use crying over spilt milk
    C) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  8. Should we add more decoration to the cake?
    A) You can’t have your cake and eat it too
    B) Two heads is better than one
    C) Less is more
  9. I can’t believe they drew the game in the last minute!
    A) It’s not over till the fat lady sings
    B) two heads is better than one
    C) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  10. 10 . The gym across the road has much better equipment than we have here.
    A) Practise what you preach
    B) It never rains, it pours
    C)  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
  11. I want to work somewhere relaxed and also get paid a lot of money.
    A) You can’t have your cake and eat it too
    B) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
    C) If you play with fire, you’ll get burnt
  12. I gave my grandad an iphone 11 for Christmas but he still calls instead of messaging.
    A) It’s not over till the fat lady sings
    B) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
    C) Two heads is better than one
Exercises answers:

Exercise 1:

  1. C)
  2. A)
  3. B)
  4. C)
  5. B)
  6. C)
  7. A)
  8. C)
  9. A)
  10. C)
  11. B)
  12. C)
  13. A)
  14. C)
  15. B)

Exercise 2:

  1. A bad workman always blames his tools
  2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
  3. Good things come to those who wait
  4. Money doesn’t grow on trees
  5. The early bird catches the worm
  6. When in Rome do as the Romans do
  7. Where there’s a will there’s a way
  8. The end justifies the means
  9. Actions speak louder than words
  10. You can have too much of a good thing
  11. Two wrongs don’t make a right
  12. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
  13. Beggars can’t be choosers
  14. Better late than never
  15. Don’t bury your head in the sand
Exercise 3:
  1. I)
  2. D)
  3. J)
  4. E)
  5. K)
  6. F)
  7. L)
  8. G)
  9. M)
  10. H)
  11. C)
  12. O)
  13. B)
  14. A)
  15. N)
Exercise 4:
  1. A)
  2. B)
  3. C)
  4. C)
  5. C)
  6. A)
  7. B)
  8. C)
  9. A)
  10. C)
  11. A)
  12. B)
Click here to download this post via our mobile website!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

Jennifer G.
— ESL Tutor.
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