Top 10 Adages in English: Meaning and Examples

Embodying the wisdom of generations, adages in English, such as ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ serve as short wise words, memorable, and traditional sayings that impart timeless truths about life. These concise expressions convey practical advice or observations based on common experiences, acting as cultural signposts that are passed down through generations and become integral to a society‘s oral tradition.

What is an Adage in English?

People have used adages for longer than proverbs. They are sayings that have deeper meaning than the words read at face value. Folks have considered adages as true sayings. A short saying that is usually true. Old advice that is really helpful and true.

Adages provide guidance and offer insights into human behavior and life experiences. They are concise and packed with meaning.

An adage carries a powerfully clear meaning of what a native English speaker is willing to convey generally.

Adages in English Lanaguage
Diamonds come in small packages.

Example of Adages in English: 

“Love is blind.”

Example: When you’re in love, you might not notice the little imperfections or flaws in the other person. It’s like saying love doesn’t care about appearances, and that’s what they mean when they say “love is blind” which was popularized through Greek and Roman antiquity.

“Better safe than sorry.” 

Example: It’s usually better to be cautious and play it safe, even if it seems like a bit much. The saying “better safe than sorry” just means it’s smarter to prevent problems than to deal with regrets later on.

“Can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

Example: You can’t have it both ways – that’s what “can’t have your cake and eat it, too” is getting at. It means you can’t keep your cake untouched and still enjoy eating it; you have to make choices because you can’t have everything at once.

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Example: This saying, “beggars can’t be choosers,” simply means that when you’re in a position of need or dependency, you can’t be too selective. In other words, if you’re relying on someone’s generosity, you shouldn’t be overly particular about what you receive.

What is a Proverb (or adages in English)?

A proverb is very similar to an adage. However, proverbs tend to be longer. They reflect common sense advice and are perceived as truths. Proverbs are thought to have originated from real experiences.

Example Proverbs:

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink

An apple a day keeps the doctor away A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

The proverb “Brevity is the soul of wit” was paraphrased by the William Shakespeare in Hamlet (1600) although it sounds like an anonymous proverb and we might not find any connection with him about this very famous one across the world.

Here is an introductory video on proverb:

Difference between Adage and Proverb

A saying, handed down through history, imparting wisdom. A saying used to give advice to families.
Short and concise, but considered to be true.A longer saying but believed to relate to real life circumstances and experiences people may have.
Adages found in the bible in the book of proverbs are known as proverbs.Proverbs have some of their origins in the bible but are also updated into witty say- ings pertinent to today’s social needs.

Most Commonly Used Adage in English in US

1. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

  • Definition: Emphasizes the benefits of a good sleep schedule for health, productivity, and overall success.
  • Example: Ben Franklin was a big believer in this adage. He woke up early, worked diligently, and became known for his health, wealth, and wisdom.
  • Context: Used to promote discipline, ambition, and a focus on well-being.

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

  • Definition: Warns against premature celebration or assuming success before it’s truly achieved.
  • Example: The farmer thought he’d have 20 new chickens, but then a fox ate some of the eggs. He learned not to count his chickens before they’re hatched.
  • Context: Used to caution against overconfidence or being overly focused on the outcome instead of the process.

3. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

  • Definition: You can’t make something beautiful or valuable out of something fundamentally flawed or inadequate.
  • Example: Despite the designer’s efforts, the dress made from cheap fabric just wouldn’t look elegant. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
  • Context: Used to express limits of transformation or the importance of quality starting materials.

4. Barking up the wrong tree

  • Definition: Pursuing a mistaken course of action or accusing the wrong person.
  • Example: The detective thought he had the right suspect, but after weeks of investigation, he realized he was barking up the wrong tree.
  • Context: Used to describe being misguided, wrong, or wasting efforts.

5. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Definition: Don’t discard something valuable along with unwanted elements.
  • Example: The company’s reorganization plan had some flaws, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – there are some good ideas worth keeping.
  • Context: Used to promote careful evaluation and the preservation of positive aspects even when changes are needed

6. A penny saved is a penny earned

  • Definition: Emphasizes the importance of saving, even small amounts.
  • Example: Instead of buying a coffee every day, Sarah made her own and saved the money. A penny saved is a penny earned, and it all adds up.
  • Context: Used to promote frugality and the long-term benefits of saving

7. You reap what you sow

  • Definition: Your actions and decisions have consequences, both positive and negative.
  • Example: The student studied hard all semester and reaped the rewards with a good grade.
  • Context: Used to highlight the connection between effort and results, or responsibility for one’s own situation

8. Make hay while the sun shines

  • Definition: Take advantage of favorable circumstances while they last.
  • Example: The farmers worked tirelessly during the dry spell to harvest their crop. They knew they had to make hay while the sun shines.
  • Context: Used to encourage seizing opportunities and making the most of a good situation

9. An apple a day keeps the doctor away

  • Definition: Eating healthy contributes to well-being and can prevent illness.
  • Example: Although it’s not a foolproof guarantee, including fruits like apples in your diet is a good way to support your health. An apple a day keeps the doctor away… or so they say!
  • Context: Used to promote healthy eating habits

10. Busy as a bee

  • Definition: Someone very active, productive, and constantly working.
  • Example: Our new project manager is always on the move, attending meetings, and getting things done. She’s as busy as a bee.
  • Context: Used to describe diligence or a high energy level

Top 11 Commonly Used Proverbs with their Origins and Meanings:

Top 10 Adages and Proverbs in English
Big fish eat little fish:

Meaning: Powerful or influential people often take advantage of those who are smaller or weaker.

Origin: Derived from ancient wisdom, possibly with roots in various cultures.

One swallow does not make a summer:

Meaning: One positive event does not indicate a lasting change or improvement.

Origin: Traced back to Greek philosopher Aristotle’s writings.

One hand washes the other:

Meaning: Mutual cooperation benefits everyone involved.

Origin: Ancient in origin, it reflects the idea of reciprocal assistance and teamwork.

There is nothing new under the sun:

Meaning: Many things have happened before, and history often repeats itself.

Origin: Derived from the Bible, specifically Proverbs 1:9.

Man does not live by bread alone:

Meaning: People need more than just material things for a fulfilling life.

Origin: Originates from the Bible, appearing in Deuteronomy 8:3 and Matthew 4:4.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you:

Meaning: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Origin: Rooted in the Bible, specifically Matthew 7:12.

The prophet is not without honor, save in his own country:

Meaning: People are often not appreciated or respected in their hometown.

Origin: From the Bible, found in Matthew 13:57.

Strike while the iron is hot:

Meaning: Take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

Origin: Traced back to medieval Latin, translated into national languages.

All that glitters is not gold:

Meaning: Not everything that appears valuable or attractive is genuinely so.

Origin: Originated in medieval Latin, translated into national languages.

The pitcher goes so often to the well that it is broken at last:

Meaning: Repetitive actions can lead to negative consequences.

Origin: Originates from medieval Latin, translated into national languages.

New brooms sweep clean:

Meaning: Newly appointed individuals or things often bring initial improvement or change.

Origin: Rooted in medieval Latin, translated into national languages.


In conclusion, adages and proverbs are short, memorable sayings that offer life lessons or practical advice. While similar, adages tend to be more specific to a situation, whereas proverbs offer broader truths. By understanding and using these wise sayings in your communication, you can add depth and character to your conversations and writing.

For further exploration of adages in English and proverbs as well, here are some recommended resources: