5 must-learn English proverbs and how to use them

5 must-learn English proverbs & how to use them like a native

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?

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 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 #1

Two’s company, three’s a crowd.

You know that feeling when you’re hanging out with a friend. Everything’s going well, and you’re having a great time together doing … whatever it is that you do with your friend.

Then you run into (= meet) another friend and you start hanging out together as a group of three.

But sometimes it feels like you were having much more fun when it was just two people.

That’s when you can use this proverb.

English Proverbs: Two's company, three's a crowd.
Who invited HIM?

OK. So it means …?

It means: Spending time with one other person is better than spending time with two other people.

Great. How can I use it?

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

Here’s an example:

ANNOYING FRIEND: Hey, buddy! What are you doing tomorrow?
YOU: Ali and I are going to hang out at the lake.
ANNOYING FRIEND: Great! Can I come?
YOU: Sorry. You know what they say. Two’s company … Maybe next time.

English Proverb #2

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Have you ever needed to work on a project in a team? Sometimes it works out really well, right? And sometimes it doesn’t.

Think about the times it didn’t work well. Why didn’t it work?

For some projects, you only need a few people to work on it. When there are too many people, it doesn’t work — the communication between everyone gets mixed up, and there’s no workflow.

That’s when you can use this proverb.

English Proverbs: Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Hey! Don’t put that in there!

OK. So it means …?

It means: If too many people work on a project, it won’t be good.

Great. How can I use it?

Like the other English proverbs, you can just use the first part, “Too many cooks,” and then everyone will understand what you mean.

Here’s an example:

ANGRY CLIENT: But this building looks like an ice cream!
ARCHITECT: I know, I know!
ANGRY CLIENT: But I didn’t want it to look like an ice cream!
ARCHITECT: Oh. I’m so sorry. But all our people were working on it.
ANGRY CLIENT: Hmm … Maybe that’s the problem. Too many cooks …

English Proverb #3

When in Rome, do as the Romans.

Well, you don’t have to use this when you’re in Rome. (But if you are in Rome, then it’s especially cool!)

When I was a kid I went to a very informal school. We called the teachers by their first names (not Mr or Mrs or Miss), boys could have long hair and even piercings, and we could wear whatever we wanted. Not only that, but the teachers could wear what they wanted, too.

One day we had a new teacher. For about a week or two he came to class wearing a suit and tie. He was a professional and I think he didn’t feel comfortable wearing casual clothes in class.

But after a week, I think he started to feel uncomfortable because he was the only teacher wearing a suit. So he started wearing jeans and a shirt (no tie).

This is because he was in a place where suits were unusual. Maybe he liked wearing a suit, but he changed to fit into his environment.

And that’s when you can use this proverb.

English Proverbs: When in Rome, do as the Romans.
Whose hand is that?

OK. So it means …?

It means: Sometimes you should change your behaviour to do the same as the people around you.

Great. How can I use it?

Again, just use the first half: “When in Rome …”

Here’s an example:

TOUR GUIDE: Welcome to our country. It is normal in our country to give your sister a grapefruit every Thursday.
TOUR GUIDE: It’s Thursday today.
TOURIST: Ah, all right. When in Rome … Here you are sis’. Enjoy this grapefruit!
TOURIST’S SISTER: Er … thanks.

English Proverb #4

When it rains, it pours.

You’re waiting for a bus. Five minutes pass. Then 10. Then after 15 minutes, you’re really really ready to get on that bus.

Then what happens? Four buses come at the same time. You only needed one, but now you have four.

That’s when you can use this proverb.

English Proverbs: When it rains, it pours.
Why do I like water so much?

OK. So it means …?

It means: Sometimes when something happens, you get more than you need at the same time.

Great. How can I use it?

Have you noticed the pattern yet? Use the first half: “When it rains …”

Here’s an example:

YOU: Hey, Hannah! How’s it going?
HANNAH: Really bad.
YOU: Why?
HANNAH: My boyfriend and I have split up.
YOU: Oh, no …
HANNAH: And my goldfish died.
YOU: Oh, I’m so sorry!
Hannah: And I lost my job.
YOU: Oh, wow! When it rains …

English Proverb #5

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I love my bike. I actually bought it at a second-hand shop for very little money.

Now, it’s not the best bike in the world. The seat is a bit too low, the gears are a bit difficult to move, and it’s probably the noisiest bicycle in Europe.

I could take it to the bike shop and get the seat fixed and the gears changed, and put some oil on it.

But I’m not going to, because it works, and I’m quite happy with it.

That’s when you can use this proverb.

English Proverbs: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Can you smell smoke?

By the way, “it ain’t broke”  =  “it is not broken”

OK. So it means …?

It means: If something is working, you don’t need to fix it. Even if it’s old.

Great. How can I use it?

Follow the pattern: “If it ain’t broke …”

Here’s an example:

EXCELLENT NEW BOSS: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the meeting.
EMPLOYEE 1: So I guess you’re going to make a lot of changes as the new boss?
EMPLOYEE 2: Are you going to fire anyone?
EMPLOYEE 3: Please don’t change the filing system. We’ve been using it for years.
EMPLOYEE 4: … and please can we still wear casual clothes to work?
EXCELLENT NEW BOSS: Don’t worry. I’m not going to fire anyone. The filing system will stay the same, and the dress code won’t change. Everything is working fine here. If it ain’t broke …

Want more English proverbs? Click here to learn five more proverbs.

16 thoughts on “5 must-learn English proverbs and how to use them

  1. What an amazing lesson. So useful and so interesting! And absolutely new for me. Can you explain me something, please? The phrase: if it ain’t broke… Why don’t we say: if it’s not broken? If I’m not mistaken “to be broken by someone” is the passive, isn’t it? I’m really grateful for all your lessons, this one is very interesting!:-)

    1. Thanks Tania.

      And great question. First off — yes, it’s the passive form. There are a couple of “unorthadox” things happening with the language here.

      Proverbs tend to happen through spoken English, which is usually much more informal. As a result, we have two “incorrect” forms in this phrase:

      1. “isn’t” becomes “‘aint.” I think this came from American English, but is now quite widespread. I also think of the classic American double-negative when I hear this word: “I ‘aint got no money.”
      2. “broken” becomes “broke.” Again, a very informal (and technically incorrect) use of the word. There’s not much reason behind this apart from the fact that English is very diverse! Also “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” doesn’t flow as well as the real version.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Gabriel…just my two cents…it is a brilliant idea to keep on posting articles explaining proverbs. I will try to use these proverbs; thanks for your clear explanations!

    1. Hi Daniel. Thanks for your comment.

      I’m going to respond with another proverb: Great minds think alike.

      In other words — this week’s post is going to be about proverbs!

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