Common North American Proverbs (Quiz & List)

ESL Level: Intermediate-Advanced

Language Focus: Common proverbs used in North America


This page has a quiz and a list of 47 proverbs that I think every student of English (ESL) should learn. I am North American (Canadian), so I chose the phrases that were most common. However, these phrases can be used in all English-speaking countries.

A proverb is an idiomatic expression (idiom) that is used to tell a truth about life or give advice. Proverbs are usually complete sentences, whereas idioms are generally shorter (a few words). Compare:

He went crazy. (Idiom = to go crazy, which means to become crazy or lose control of your emotions)

Seeing is believing. (Proverb, which means that it is difficult to believe something if you have not seen it.)

For a quiz on idioms, please go here.

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Note: All the proverbs in the quiz are taken from the list below.

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Useful North American Proverb List

A friend in need is a friend indeed.Someone who helps you when you are in an emergency (you are in need) is your true friend.

Example: When I had to move to my new apartment, John was the only one who asked to help me move. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Action speaks louder than words.Speaking about something is not enough — it’s better to DO something about it.

Example: “John, you’re always talking about how good you are at tennis, so why don’t you play a game against me? Action speaks louder than words.”

 All that glitters is not gold.Things that look valuable or attractive from the outside might not truly be valuable.

Example: The hotel looked amazing from the outside, but when we went inside, it was quite dirty. All that glitters is not gold.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.If you eat healthy food, you won’t get sick and need to go to the doctor’s.

Example: Lisa, if you don’t want to get sick, you should start eating healthily! An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.Children are like their parents. (The apple represents a seed, and the tree is the parent).

Example: Winston is a great artist, just like his mother. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Bad news travels fast.Gossip and bad news spread quicker than good news.

Example: By 3 p.m, everyone had learnt that Barry had been fired. Bad news travels fast.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.Beauty is subjective (it depends on your opinion)

Example: I thought the painting was ugly, but Francine loved it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Beggars can’t be choosers.People who are in need should not be picky (they should accept whatever they can get).

Example: Although he man didn’t like bananas, he gladly accepted it because he hadn’t eaten in days. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Better late than never.Doing something late is better than not doing it at all.

Example:  I sent my mom a birthday card even though I knew it wouldn’t arrive on time. Better late than never.

Better safe than sorry.It’s best to take safety precautions.

Example: I wear a helmet when I ride my bicycle. Better safe than sorry. 

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.People who are bigger or more powerful lose have so much more to lose if they fail.

Example: The movie star thought he had everything in life; however, after the scandal, he found that he didn’t have people who loved him or any hope for the future. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Birds of a feather flock together.People who are similar tend to spend time together.

Example: Jody and all of her friends are really attractive. Birds of a feather flock together.

Curiosity killed the cat.Being too curious can be dangerous.

Example: The boy wanted to see if the fire was hot, so he put his hand in it and burned it. Curiosity killed the cat.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.Don’t treat the people who support you or whom you depend on poorly.

Example: The young politician ignored the people who helped him get elected. As a result, they didn’t elect him again. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Don’t cry over spilt milk.Don’t cry or feel sad about situations that have already happened which you cannot change.

Example: I can’t believe we lost the football game! I’m so angry. Don’t cry over spilt milk.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.Don’t form your opinion on something or someone based by how it looks.

Example: Mr. Walker looks very old, so I doubt he is a very good English teacher. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Easier said than done.Talking about something is easier than doing it.

Example: It’s not that hard to make a million dollars nowadays. Easier said than done. 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.If something is working well, then don’t change it.

Example: Although the football team didn’t play perfectly, they won, so the coach has decided not to change any of the players for next game. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Don’t put all your eggs into one basket.Don’t put all your valuables or efforts into one area; instead, diversify so you will not lose them all if a problem occurs.

Example: Lyle invested all of his money into the Japanese Stock Market, so when it crashed, he nearly lost everything. He shouldn’t have put all his eggs into one basket.

Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk.Don’t talk about things that you cannot actually do.

Example: A: I could dance better than her if I tried. B: Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk.

Good things come in small packages.Small things can sometimes be better than big things.

Example: The little box Elliot gave his girlfriend contained a beautiful necklace, to her surprise. Good things come in small packages.

Honesty is the best policy.At all times, it’s best to tell the truth.

Example: I decided to tell my father that I took five dollars from his wallet. Honesty is the best policy.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.What other people have always looks better than what you have.

Example: Kate is envious of her neighbour, who has a nicer house and car. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

If you can’t beat them, join them.If you cannot beat your opponent/enemy, often you may get more advantage by joining them.

Example: After her company went bankrupt, Margaret decided to work for her biggest competitor. If you can’t beat them, join them.

If you snooze, you lose.If you don’t react quickly, you will miss you chance (note: to snooze means to sleep).

John got the best piece of cake because he was the first one to go up to the dessert table. If you snooze, you lose. 

There are other fish in the sea.There are many other people in the world who could be suitable for you (usually as a girlfriend or boyfriend).

Example: I can’t believe Vivian broke up with me. I’ll never find another girl like her. There are other fish in the sea. 

Money does not grow on trees.Money is hard to get.

Example: John, let’s stay home and make dinner instead of spending $100 at an expensive restaurant. Money does not grow on trees. 

No news is good news.In some situations, a lack of news means that things are going well.

Example: Jane’s was a little worried about her husband who was on a hunting trip with his friends. However, he hadn’t phoned her, so she assumed he was alright. No news is good news. 

No pain, no gain.If you don’t work hard, you cannot gain what you want.

Example: John doesn’t like exercising, but he knows he has to do it every day if he wants to play professional football. No pain, no gain. 

Patience is a virtue.It’s good to be patient.

Example: The children wanted to eat dinner now, but their mother told them they’d have to learn to wait until things are ready. Patience is a virtue.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.Older people aren’t able to change their habits or ways.

Example: I’ve tried to teach my grandfather how to use email, but he just can’t understand it. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. 

Seeing is believing.When you see something with your own eyes, then you can know it is true.

Example: I didn’t believe that elephants could walk until I saw it at the circus. Seeing is believing. 

The squeaky wheel gets the oil.People who complain the loudest get the most attention (and help).

Example: No one enjoyed the restaurant’s food; however, Joyce was the only one who complained. As a result, they decided that she didn’t have to pay for her meal. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

The early bird gets the worm.People who wake up early or do things early have an advantage.

Example: Janice and her husband arrived early to the movie theatre, so they got to pick the best seats. The early bird gets the worm.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.Too many people involved in one task  (e.g. cooking the broth of a soup) can make it hard to accomplish.

Example: The company was mismanaged because there were too many people who thought they were the boss. Too many cooks spoil the broth. 

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.There is more than one way to achieve an aim.

Example: John wanted to cook his steak, but he didn’t have a barbecue, so he decided to roast it in the oven. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. 

Time will tell.The answer will be revealed after some more time passes.

Example: Do you think we will live to be 100 years old? Time will tell.

Time is money.Time is valuable; if you don’t use it wisely you will lose money.

Example: John, stop using your cellphone and get to work! Time is money.

Practice makes perfect.Practicing helps you improve (until one day, you can do something perfectly).

Example: The music teacher told her student to play the song again. Practice makes perfect.

Two heads are better than one.Cooperation leads to more effective work.

Example: Peter, I want you to work with Lisa on this project. Two heads are better than one.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.Getting revenge, or doing another negative thing, will not make the situation better.

Example: Although the man punched me, I decided not to punch him back. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.Adopt the customs and habits of the local people.

Example: I tried using chopsticks when I was in Japan. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. 

When the cat’s away, the mice will play.When the figure of authority (e.g. boss/parents) is away, the followers (e.g. workers/children) will not follow the rules.

Example: The Smiths had left their teenage children home by themselves last night, but when they got home, the house was a big mess. When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.If you try (i.e. if you will something), then you can find a way to achieve your aim.

Example:

Janice knew it would be hard to get into the top university in her country, but she was determined to do it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.You cannot have something (e.g. a cake) and also eat it (because then it will be gone, and you won’t have it anymore.) Meaning: You shouldn’t try to have two things that are incompatible.

Example: John didn’t want to break up with his girlfriend, but he also wanted to date other girls. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.It takes time to make something good / quality work takes time.

Example: The construction company told their client that it would take at least 10 months to repair their basement. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Every cloud has a silver lining.Every bad situation or experience has something that you can learn or gain from it.

Example: Although Marie was shocked when she lost her job, she ended up finding a better one a few months later. Every cloud has a silver lining. 

Can’t find a proverb? Do a Google search :) There are dozens of great sites out there. This is not meant to be a list of all proverbs; it’s just a list of the most common and useful ones in my opinion. I won’t be adding more proverbs to this list.

If you have a question, feel free to leave a comment below.

— Created by Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com (ESL). Proverb definitions, examples, and quiz are copyrighted.

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