What are Proverbs?

Proverb is a commonly-used tool to make speech and writing captivating and succinct. Contrast these two arguments:

We’ve hired a designer to bring uniformity and quality in design, but some of the divisions are still designing their own stuff. That’s unnecessary expense as well.

Why keep a dog and bark yourself?

The latter, as you might have guessed, is a proverb.

What is a proverb?

A proverb is popular words of wisdom, which can be in the form of a general truth or an advice or occasionally an observation expressed through a short, pithy sentence. Examples:

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. [General truth]

A drowning man will clutch a straw. [General truth]

Don’t open a shop unless you know how to smile. [Advice]

Why keep a dog and bark yourself? [Advice]

You are what you eat. [Observation]

More die of food than famine. [Observation]

Proverbs, which make our speech and writing captivating and succinct, have been passing on this wealth of information from generation to generation, but they can’t be attributed to an author. They’re nameless. Most of them have been in circulation for centuries – even millenniums – but they can be modern too. Few modern proverbs in English – and these are few decades old – are:

Small is beautiful.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Are proverbs true? Not necessarily.

Take these proverbs, for example:

Money is the root of all evil.

Children should be seen and not heard.

Clergyman’s sons always turn out badly.

The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot.

They might have reflected reality of some past time, but they don’t hold true entirely now. Some proverbs are in fact outrightly sexist and demeaning to some sections of the society and are treated regressive today. In medieval times, proverbs were regarded as universal truths and were often used by accomplished speakers and writers to support their argument, but not so much today.

If you’re looking for proverbs and sayings, you can find plenty of them in the resource below. It contains proverbs on topics such as life, family, friends, love, health, happiness, money, hard work, time, time management, teamwork, leadership, business, education & learning, and more.

Are proverbs figurative language?

Proverbs are not tools of figurative language because they aren’t always figurative. They’re sometimes figurative and sometimes literal.

These proverbs, for example, are figurative:

All that glitters is not gold.

Early bird catches the worm.

And these are literal:

Be slow in choosing, but slower in changing.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Proverbs are sometimes confused with idioms, adages, and quotes. Let’s take each.

Are proverbs same as idioms?

Proverbs and idioms are the most confused pair. The two are different though in few aspects:

1. Idioms and proverbs have different function

A proverb conveys a general truth or an advice or an observation through a short, pithy sentence. An idiom, though, can express almost anything.

2. An idiom is figurative language. Proverb, not necessarily.

You can’t understand an idiom by taking it literally, implying they’re figurative. For example, the idiom chicken and egg situation can’t be understood from its four constituent words.

Proverbs, however, can be literal (can be understood from constituent words) or figurative (can’t be understood from constituent words). Examples:

When a twig grows hard, it is difficult to twist it. [Figurative]

Prosperity makes friends, and adversity tries them. [Literal]

3. A proverb is written as a sentence. An idiom, usually not.

Proverbs are written as sentences. Idioms, mostly as phrases.

Prosperity makes friends, and adversity tries them. [Proverb: a sentence]

An eye for an eye [Idiom: not a sentence]

Few idioms can be converted into proverbs

Few popular idioms can be converted into proverbs. Examples (notice that the proverb is in the form of advice):

Throw the baby out with the bath water [Idiom]

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. [Proverb]

Put the cart before the horse. [Idiom]

Don’t put the cart before the horse. [Proverb]

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Are proverbs same as quotes?

Proverbs are different from quotes.

A proverb conveys a general truth or an advice or an observation, often in circulation for centuries and even millenniums. It is rarely attributed to a person.

A quote (or quotation), on the other hand, can convey almost any message. They’re relatively recent and are often attributed to a well-known person. Examples:

Be the change that you wish to see in the world. Mahatma Gandhi [The quote, unlike a proverb, is attributable to a person.]

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. Benjamin Franklin

Are proverbs same as adages?

Unlike other distinctions we’ve seen so far, proverb vs. adage is close. They’re often used interchangeably, but there is a fine line dividing the two.

Whereas proverbs express general truth, advice, or observation, adages express general truths accumulated over centuries and millenniums. Adages have been around for much longer than proverbs, but proverbs are more widely used.

Examples of proverbs (they can be more than general truth):

After victory, tighten your helmet chord.

A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what a ship is for.

Get out while the going is good.

Well begun is half done.

Examples of adages (they’re in the form of general truth):

A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.

All that glitters is not gold.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

No risk, no gain.

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Anil Yadav

Anil is the person behind this website. He writes on most aspects of English Language Skills. More about him here:

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