Vocabulary in English

5 must-learn English proverbs and how to use them (part 2)

5 Must-Learn English Proverbs and How to Use Them (part 2)

This is part 2 of a series of posts on English proverbs. Click here for part 1.

English proverbs are powerful things. They can express 100 words, so they’re efficient. You can sound like an excellent English speaker when you use a proverb, so they’re impressive. And they are sometimes a little weird, so they’re fun.

Wait! What’s a proverb?

OK. A proverb is a sentence that you can use to give advice. They are usually (but not always) old and often create a strong image in your mind. Most languages have proverbs.

Here are five more common English proverbs you can use in different situations to sound like an excellent English speaker, make your English more efficient and connect with the person you’re speaking with.

English Proverb #6

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

When was the last time you felt particularly desperate? Perhaps you needed to go to a wedding, but you also had to work that day.

Perhaps you needed to raise a lot of money in a short amount of time.

Maybe you needed to get from one side of a massive city to the other in less than an hour. At rush hour. In the snow.

Sometimes we’re all faced with situations that seem impossible.

But if you really need to achieve the impossible, you can! (Remember, “impossible” actually says “I’m possible.”) That’s when you can use this proverb.

OK. So it means…?

It means: If you really want to do something, even if it seems impossible, you can do it if you try hard enough. (In this proverb, “will” is an old-fashioned way of saying “want.”)

Great. How can I use it?

OK. Here’s a neat trick that you can use with most English proverbs. Usually, the first half of the proverb is enough. The person who you’re talking to will understand what you mean.

English Proverbs: YOU: OK. It looks like I can’t go to the wedding in Prague AND go to Maria’s birthday party. ENCOURAGING FRIEND: But the wedding’s on Saturday afternoon and the party’s in the evening. Check the flights between Prague and London. YOU: I guess it’s possible … ENCOURAGING FRIEND: Where there’s a will, ...

English Proverb #7

Out of sight, out of mind.

So I don’t eat chocolate much. It’s delicious, but I know that when I have some, I eat it all. Quickly.

But there’s a neat trick I discovered that works very well when there’s chocolate in the house. It’s very simple but I can completely (well, almost completely) trick my brain into believing that there’s no chocolate in the house.

What do I do?

I hide it. If I can’t see the chocolate whenever I open a cupboard or walk into the room, I actually forget that I have it.

That’s when you can use this idiom.

OK. So it means…?

It means: If you stop seeing something, you actually forget that it exists.

Great. How can I use it?

Like most of the proverbs in this post, if we cut off the end, it sounds a bit more natural.

English Proverbs: HANDE: OK, Ves. I just got an email from the company. It looks like we didn’t pay our electricity bill. VES: Oh! Yeah -- It’s because the company stopped sending us the physical bills on paper and started just sending us SMS messages instead. I completely forgot. HANDE: Aha. Out of sight...

English Proverb #8

Don’t cry over spilt milk.

Regret. It’s can be such a useless emotion.

You spend hours cooking a meal. You’re right at the end when you’re taking it out of the oven. The perfect dish.

Then… you drop it. All of it. On the floor.

It’s a horrible feeling, isn’t it?

And the most natural reaction is to get angry at yourself for making a mess of dinner.

But is that feeling of regret and anger actually helping you? It’s part of being human, sure, but there’s no good reason to feel like this.

That’s when you can use this idiom.

OK. So it means…?

Don’t be regretful or angry after something bad happens if it can’t be fixed.

Great. How can I use it?

We actually shorten this proverb a little differently from the others in this post. We can’t just use the first half (“Don’t cry”) because others won’t know that you’re trying to use this proverb. Instead, we can use the most recognisable part of the idiom (“spilt milk”).

English Proverbs: RISK-LOVING WALL STREET WOMAN: I see your last investment didn’t work out very well, Jin. SUE: I lost over $700,000 dollars! I’m never going to get that back! RISK-LOVING WALL STREET WOMAN: Forget it! Spilt milk, spilt milk. Just find another thing to invest in.

English Proverb #9

If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Humans are strange.

I sometimes think about how strange it is that as humans we are so independent but at the same time so organised.

It’s good to be independent and get things done yourself. It’s satisfying and there’s a feeling of achievement.

But we still need each other. We couldn’t do most of the things that we do without helping each other.

What’s our system for this?

Well, usually I help one of my friends and then on another day, he’ll help me. That’s the system. The “helping friends” system!

That’s when we can use this proverb.

OK. So it means…?

It means: I’ll help you out if you help me out.

Great. How can I use it?

We can add the short version (“I’ll scratch your back”) as a part of an offer:

English Proverbs: YOU: It’s a bit of a problem actually… YOUR AWESOME FRIEND: Yeah? YOU: Yeah. my partner and I really want to go and check out this band on Thursday, but no one can look after the kids. YOUR AWESOME FRIEND: Oh really? My partner and I want to go to the theatre on Friday. How about we look after your kids on Thursday … YOU: Aha! And we can look after your kids on Friday! YOUR AWESOME FRIEND: I’ll scratch your back....
This is also a useful proverb to use when we’re describing how politicians and businessmen “help each other out.” Usually they’re doing something illegal or unethical (or EVIL!) and need to protect each other.

English Proverb #10

Great minds think alike.

I actually used this proverb very recently with one of our readers. (Hi Daniel!)

He recently requested that I write another post about proverbs. This was the day after I had updated my blog post schedule to include… well … this post about proverbs.

Daniel’s obviously a smart guy. Why do I say that? Because he thinks like me!

That’s when we can use this proverb.

OK. So it means…?

It means that smart people have the same ideas.

Great. How can I use it?

Again, we can cut off the second half of this proverb and most people will understand.

English Proverbs: LAZY GUY 1: Man … we still have to do all this work? LAZY GUY 2: Yeah. So much work. And it’s 5pm already! LAZY GUY1: Hmmm…. LAZY GUY 2: Yeah. LAZY GUY 1: … LAZY GUY 2: Are you thinking what I’m thinking? LAZY GUY 1: I don’t know. What are you thinking? LAZY GUY 2: Well, we could just go home and do all this on Monday…. LAZY GUY 1: That’s what I was thinking! Great minds….

If you missed part 1 of the proverbs series, click here.

16 thoughts on “5 must-learn English proverbs and how to use them (part 2)

  1. Hi Gabriel,
    I took some days off from all my online activities. Now I am back! It was a big surprise to see this post and that you took into account my opinion. I don’t have enough words to express my feelings! Thanks a lot!

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Welcome back! It’s good to see you here again.
      Your suggestion was great. It seems that proverbs are popular and I really enjoy writing about them.

      Let me know if you have any other suggestions, yeah?

  2. hello and thank you for the post!
    the funny thing is that in Russian we have a proverb with similar meaning but instead of talking about great minds we say “fools think alike” 🙂

    1. Oooh… I really like that.

      I guess if smart people think similarly, then it stands to reason that fools do, too.

      In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it. That’s why we get “mob mentality,” right?

    1. Excellent question!

      I’d say they’re similar — but there’s a significant difference.

      When I imagine “herd” mentality, I think of a herd of sheep blindly following each other and not thinking about where they’re going or why they’re doing it. Kind of like zombies.

      But with “mob” mentality, it gets more sinister. It’s also a collection of people all doing something without really thinking about it, but this time it’s aggressive and they’re probably on the attack. Imagine the a group of people all marching to someone’s house to burn his house down because he’s a bit different (you’ve probably seen this image in lots of classic films). Or how political leaders sometimes get the people to start attacking a minority group. That kind of thing.

      Does that make sense?

  3. and I’d like to suggest a topic for one of your future posts if that’s OK.
    the thing that confuses me sometimes is when we should use “to” and when we should use “for” after past and present participles and adjectives (e.g. That was surprising “for” me or “to” me)
    could you, please, explain the difference if there is any?
    thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Inna.

      I love getting suggestions for posts. It not only means I can write about stuff you actually need to know, but it also generates discussion and that’s one of the best ways of learning (for all of us — myself included).

      So thanks for the suggestion. I really like it — it’s one of those weird, “tricky corners” of English, which is exactly what I love writing about. So yes — consider it done (soon)!

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