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English Proverbs

Proverbs are wise saying, often warnings, which have been passed from generation to generation. Nobody knowns exactly when they were first used or who invented them but their advice will never be out of date. Sometimes a proverb is so well-known that only the first half of it is used – for example, It’s the last straw instead of It’s the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Let us have a look at some of the most common of English proverbs.

1. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush

Meaning: It is foolish to risk everything one has for the possibility of something better.


John: A film director has offered me a part in his upcoming film. He said it could make me a star overnight.

Mark: Take my advice; a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. You have a good office job at present. Why risk losing that for a film which might not be a success?

John: Because the director is Steven Spielberg!

A common form of this proverb is the phrase It’s a case of a bird in the hand……….

2. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

Meaning: don’t assume a good result before you know there is one


John: I’ve booked a honeymoon for Lisa and myself. We’re going to Barbados in the Caribbean.

Mark: Aren’t you counting your chickens before they are hatched? She hasn’t even agreed to marry you yet.

As the expression is so long, it is often shortened to Don’t count your chickens! especially when used as an exclamation.

3. Easier said than done

Meaning: extremely difficult to do


Mary: I have just flown over from America with Confusion Airlines. The flight was a nightmare-everything went wrong.

Lydia: Never mind Madam. You are here at last in London. The White Horse hotel will look after you much better. Shall I take your luggage to your room?

Mary: That’s easier said than done. Thanks to Confusion Airlines, my luggage in in Nairobi.

4. Easy come, easy go

Meaning: anything which is acquired with little effort can be easily and quickly lost.


Mary: Yesterday my husband went shopping and spent $50,000 of my money.

Lydia: That is dreadful! You must be really angry with him.

Mary: Not at all! I won the money at a casino last week, so I feel it’s easy come, easy go!

5. Go from the sublime to the ridiculous

Meaning: move from one situation which is wonderful or perfect to another which is absurd or awful.


John: The ceremony for the coronation was incredible. The King wore beautiful robes and the cathedral was full of people, music and flowers.

Mark: What happened after he was crowned?

John: It went from the sublime to the ridiculous. The King came out of the cathedral and rode back to his palace on a bicycle.

The original proverb was from the sublime to the ridiculous is only one step. It is often used in the exclamation, Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous!

6. It’s no use crying over spilt milk

Meaning: There is no point in regretting something which cannot be changed.


John: I left the roast chicken on the table for five minutes, but when I came back the dog had eaten it all. If only I hadn’t left it there – it was such a silly thing to do.

Mark: Look, there is no use crying over spilt milk. We’ll have something else for dinner instead. What is there in the fridge?

John: Just a can of dog food!

Common variations of this proverb are It’s no good crying over spilt milk or There’s no point crying over spilt milk and the command Don’t cry over spilt milk.

7. The last straw (that broke the camel’s back)

Meaning: A final problem or setback which makes a situation completely unbearable.


John: I have had very bad luck this year. My wife has left me, my mother has been kidnapped, I have lost my job and my house has been knocked down to make way for the motorway.

Mark: No wonder you look so unhappy.

Johan: But when my pet mouse died this morning it was the last straw!

This saying is often shortened to the last (or final) straw or the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is found in Charles Dickens’ book, ‘Dombey and Son’, in which he wrote “As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back, this piece of information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr. Dombey.”

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