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What Are Proverbs?

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What’s a proverb? What are some examples of proverbs, and what do they mean? How do proverbs differ from idioms? We’ll answer all these questions and more to help you become a proverb pro. Let’s begin!

White text over yellow background reads "What is a proverb?"
Do you know what proverbs are?
Proverbs: Quick Summary

A proverb is a short, catchy saying that provides useful life advice or expresses a well-established truth. Proverbs are often borrowed from other cultures, which means they can exist in more than one language.

An example of a famous proverb is:

  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

This proverb expresses that two individuals should collaborate against a shared rival or adversary.

What Is a Proverb?

A proverb is a concise yet profound statement that is frequently quoted because it provides simple and insightful advice or expresses a general truth about life. Perhaps you’ve heard of this commonly used proverb:

Actions speak louder than words.

It means that “what you do is more important than what you say.”

Proverbs can be translated from other languages and cultures, and often use metaphorical or formulaic language. For example, in the example above, actions don’t literally speak louder than words, as they can’t talk.

Proverbs come from a variety of sources, including philosophers such as Confucius and Plato; and from stories, songs, movies, literature, and more. Many sayings by Jesus and Shakespeare have become proverbs but weren’t considered such when they were first created.

Quote reads "A proverb is the wisdom of many and the wit of one."
Proverbs express a general truth—or the “wisdom of many”— succinctly and memorably.
Keep in Mind

It’s important to note that the definition and structure of proverb can differ across languages and cultures.

Characteristics of Proverbs

Proverbs share common characteristics. They are:

Short and simple

A long and winding sentence cannot be a proverb because proverbs must be concise.

Catchy or rhythmic

The conciseness and simplicity of a proverb are what allow it to be catchy or rhythmic. However, that’s not to say that a proverb must rhyme.

Easy to remember

For a proverb to spread far and wide, it has to be memorable and easy to remember.


Proverbs must stand the test of time. They should be relevant and useful in modern times, even if they were coined several years ago.

Often metaphorical or figurative

Proverbs tend to use figurative language to convey their meaning vividly.

If you ever wonder how you can create your own proverb, make sure it has  all the characteristics listed above, so it has a higher chance of, well, becoming a proverb.

Common Proverbs (and What They Mean)

Proverbs are so ingrained in the English language, that many people don’t even realize they’re using them. Countless of these sayings have come from all over the world. Below are seven examples of proverbs and what they mean.

1. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

If you eat healthy food and take care of yourself, you will be healthy and avoid trips to the doctor’s office or hospital.

2. A penny saved is a penny earned.

It’s just as important to save money as it is to earn it.

3. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Beauty is objective; what’s beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another.

4. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Don’t judge someone or something by their outward appearance alone.

5. Fortune favors the bold.

You can’t be successful without taking risks and being open to change or failure.

6. The grass is always greener on the other side.

It may seem like other people’s lives or situations are better than yours, but it’s not necessarily true.

7. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

When you are in a foreign place or situation, you should follow the customs and practices of the locals.

Idioms and Proverbs: What’s the Difference?

The line between proverbs and idioms may be hard to define, but there are key differences between them. While a proverb is a short and pithy saying that expresses a general truth or piece of advice, an idiom is a phrase or group of words that is different from the literal meaning of its individual components.

For example, kick the bucket means “to die.” However, on their own, the words kick and bucket have nothing to do with death. Similarly, the idiom break a leg has nothing to do with fracturing a bone in your body, but is another way of saying “good luck.”

In short, although proverbs employ figurative language, they are more literal sayings that convey a general truth or piece of advice. Idioms, on the other hand, have a figurative or metaphorical meaning that is different from the meaning of the words used.  

Using Proverbs in Your Writing

Although you shouldn’t use too many proverbs in your writing because you risk sounding clichéd or unoriginal, they are effective and can be useful in several ways. Proverbs can:

  • Provide a concise way of conveying a complex message or idea.
  • Add depth and richness to your writing, since proverbs are often based on common experiences and wisdom.
  • Help writers connect to readers because they can be relatable and offer a sense of familiarity.
  • Inspire creativity and present new ideas and perspectives by either supporting or challenging existing proverbs.

Another way to add richness to your text is to use LanguageTool as your writing assistant. As an advanced spelling, grammar, and punctuation checker, LanguageTool ensures your writing is easy to read by splitting sentences that are too long; helping you avoid overused expressions; and assisting in paraphrasing your wording, so you can reach your desired tone. The best part about LanguageTool? It’s free (and easy) to use!

Remember: the pen is mightier than the sword. Start strengthening your written word today!

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