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Language Arts

Common Proverbs

Common Proverbs are common sayings that capture basic truths. In this article we learn about some characteristics of common proverbs as well as examples of some well known sayings that you may not have even known were proverbs.

A proverb is a brief saying that captures a basic truth or bit of practical wisdom and is in widespread use. Proverbs are a genre of speech found internationally, and although most proverbs are examples of folk wisdom with their origins lost to us, some common proverbs were invented by well-known politicians, authors, and others. To find out more about common proverbs, keep reading.

Characteristics of Common Proverbs

Most common proverbs are only one sentence, and a sentence that has no commas, extra clauses, or anything like that. They may surprise you, but they do it quickly with the ideas they express. Some proverbs use alliteration or other sound or phrase repetition to help make them memorable. Some even rhyme, for example, this longer-than-usual proverb that contains weather wisdom:

Red sky at morning:
Sailors’ warning.
Red sky at night:
Sailors’ delight.

Examples of Common Proverbs

Like nursery rhymes, some proverbs may be so well known to us that they don’t register much. Here are some examples of proverbs that are frequently heard:

• Spare the rod and spoil the child.

This proverb espouses the view that failing to correct a child who has done wrong is not good for the child. Though many people today wouldn’t take offense at the rod part, many people might agree that childhood is a time for learning right and wrong.

• Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

This proverb encourages hearers not to count on future possibilities that may well not come to pass. A more recent expression of this sentiment goes like this:

• Don’t count your new cars before they’re built.

This version takes the proverb from the rural farm setting to an urban setting by changing a few words, while preserving the sentiment.

• You can’t judge a book by its cover.

This proverb asks the listener not to jump to conclusions based on limited or shallow knowledge. A modernized version runs:

• You can’t judge a car by its paint job.

This version, like the other car proverb, gives the proverb an up-to-date touch.

• A picture is worth a thousand words.

This proverb, coined by Fred Barnard, an advertising executive, in 1921, reminds us that sometimes the immediate impression of an image can capture more than a large number of thoughtful words.

• You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.

This long proverb is an exception to the general rule. It was created by Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, who is known for a number of wise sayings, proverbs, and pithy remarks. Notice that just as in his the famous ending of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln here uses repetition to make a memorable statement, and is able to convey enough that in 30 words he can set up a joke and provide a punchline.

Common Proverbs Around the World

It’s not unusual for proverbs from different countries to express very similar concepts. Here are some examples (with translations from the other languages):

These common proverbs are about thinking before you act:

• English: Look before you leap.
• Italian: Second thoughts are best.

These common proverbs are about needing the proper prerequisites for the next step to happen.

• English: You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
• English: You can’t get blood out of a turnip.
• Jamaican: It’s hard to get butter out of a dog’s throat.

These common proverbs are about jealousy:

• English: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
• Bulgarian: Other people’s eggs have two yolks.

These common proverbs are about the relation of thought and speech:

• English: Think before you speak.
• Scottish: Give your tongue more holidays than your head.


Wise and Otherwise (Proverb boardgame)

A Dictionary of American Proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie B. Harder