Proverbs

Ever heard the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away'?" It is such a commonly used phrase in English that native speakers may not even think about what type of phrase it is or where it came from. In case you weren't aware, this is an example of a proverb.

Proverbs Proverbs

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Table of contents

    So what exactly is a proverb, and why are they used? Let's begin by looking at a definition:

    Proverbs Definition

    A proverb is a traditional, well-known phrase or expression. It can have either a literal or figurative meaning (not to be taken literally).

    The intended meaning of a proverb is usually more complex and specific than its literal meaning. This can make it difficult for non-native speakers of English to understand them.

    For example, take the proverb "let sleeping dogs lie." The literal meaning would be to leave sleeping dogs alone. However, the intended meaning is more specific and can be applied to people's daily lives: it means to not interfere in a situation if everything is already going smoothly, as there may be problems if you do. This may not be obvious to a non-native speaker, as 'dogs' are not automatically associated with a 'situation' in life.

    A proverb is also a type of fixed expression. This means the word order must stay the same (otherwise, it would not make sense!)

    Proverbs Proverb text StudySmarterFig. 1 - An example of a proverb.

    A proverb may be confused with a proverbial phrase.

    A proverbial phrase is a saying similar to a proverb. But unlike a proverb, a proverbial phrase is not a type of fixed expression. This means the word order is able to be changed in order to fit different contexts.

    A few examples of proverbial phrases include:

    • A friend to everyone is a friend to no one.
    • Life is what you make it.
    • Live and let live.

    Characteristics of English Proverbs

    A proverb is designed to state a general truth or give advice. Because of this, they often provide the reader with wisdom or give the reader an order. This can be done through declaratives (sentences that give a statement) or imperatives (sentences that tell someone what to do). For example:

    Declarative sentence: "actions speak louder than words"

    Used to suggest that what a person does is more telling of their true feelings and intentions than what they say. This proverb could be used to persuade someone to act on their word and prove they are capable, instead of simply saying and not doing.

    Imperative sentence: "let sleeping dogs lie"

    Used to advise people not to interfere with a situation if everything is already going okay, as it may cause problems if they do.

    It is also worth mentioning that the messages of proverbs can be either positive or negative.

    Proverbs in English

    Proverbs exist in many different languages around the world. However, they may not always be universally understood. For example, a commonly used Japanese proverb will probably not be understood or used by those who do not speak Japanese. Each culture has its own unique proverbs!

    English proverbs can be confusing for people who speak English as a second language because they may not be familiar with the phrase and its context. As a result, they may take the phrase too literally or misunderstand the intended meaning.

    For example, take the proverb "blood is thicker than water."

    The literal meaning is relatively straightforward as blood is thicker than water. But, the intended meaning is more specific than the literal meaning. People use this proverb to say the relationship between family members is the strongest one of all.

    To a native speaker of English, the intended meaning is easily understood as 'blood' is often used to refer to family (e.g., blood relatives, bloodline, etc.). But, to a non-native speaker, this may not be so obvious!

    Proverbs Example

    Check out the table below for some more examples of proverbs and their meanings:

    ProverbMeaning
    Beggars can't be choosersPeople who depend on the generosity and goodness of others should be grateful for what they are offered.
    Better safe than sorryIt is better to be weary and cautious than to regret things later on.
    The pen is mightier than the swordWritten words can be more powerful than physical force.
    Good things come to those who waitPatience is a virtue.
    Don't bite the hand that feeds youDon't be ungrateful towards the people who are helping you.
    Don't count your chickens before they hatchDon't count on something that hasn't happened yet - don't get ahead of yourself!
    Ignorance is blissA lack of knowledge results in happiness.
    Absence makes the heart grow fonderWhen you're away from someone, you miss them more (and appreciate the moments you have together).
    You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggsYou can't succeed at something without encountering obstacles or making mistakes.
    All that glitters is not goldJust because something may seem good from the outside doesn't mean it is.

    English Proverbs and Idioms - What is the Difference?

    Although proverbs and idioms are similar, they have some key differences. Let's take a look at the definition of an idiom:

    An idiom is a commonly used phrase or expression. It is a type of figure of speech, so its meaning should never be taken literally.

    Another difference between idioms and proverbs is that idioms do not give advice or a statement of truth. They do not need to have some profound message; they often simply state an idea or concept. Idioms also tend to only make sense when viewed as a whole phrase, whereas proverbs can be broken down and still make sense. For example:

    The idiom "it's raining cats and dogs" does not literally mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. It is used to describe heavy rain!

    Proverbs Illustration of an idiom StudySmarterFig. 2 - 'It's raining cats and dogs'

    Proverbs Vs. Anti-proverbs

    So, you now know what a proverb is, but what is an anti-proverb? Here is a definition:

    An anti-proverb is a parody of a traditional proverb used for humorous and/or satirical purposes.

    For example:

    The proverb "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" can be transformed into a parody such as:

    Proverbs Image of an anti proverb StudySmarterFig. 3 - This anti-proverb is a parody of 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away.'

    Proverbs - Key Takeaways

    • A proverb is a traditional, well-known phrase or expression. It can have either a literal or figurative meaning.
    • The intended meaning of a proverb is usually more complex and specific than its literal meaning, which can make it difficult for non-native speakers of English to understand.
    • A proverb is designed to state a general truth or give advice. This can be done through declaratives or imperatives.
    • An idiom is a commonly used phrase/expression with a figurative meaning. It does not give advice or state a general truth.
    • An anti-proverb is a parody of a traditional proverb used for humorous and/or satirical purposes.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Proverbs

    What is a proverb's main message?

    A proverb is typically designed to give advice or state a general truth. The message can be either positive or negative.

    What are 10 examples of proverbs?

    10 examples of proverbs are:

    1. Beggars can't be choosers
    2. Better safe than sorry
    3. The pen is mightier than the sword
    4. Good things come to those who wait
    5. Don't bite the hand that feeds you
    6. Don't count your chickens before they hatch
    7. Ignorance is bliss
    8. Absence makes the heart grow fonder
    9. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs
    10. All that glitters is not gold

    What are traditional proverbs?

    Traditional proverbs refer to well-known phrases/expressions that have been around for many years and have been passed down through generations (either through verbal or written language).

    How do you write a proverb?

    A proverb can give advice or wisdom, so would be written as an imperative sentence (telling someone what to do). For example, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." A proverb can also state a general truth, so would be written as a declarative sentence. For example, "Ignorance is bliss."

    Why do we use proverbs?

    We can use proverbs for a variety of reasons, including:

    • To give advice
    • To share knowledge or wisdom
    • To teach morals
    • To inspire others
    • To make a point/argument

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false?Proverbs and proverbial phrases are the same.

    True or false?A proverb is a type of fixed expression.

    True or false?A proverb doesn't state a general truth or give advice.

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