Saturday, May 18

Proverbs and Other Phrases

Today’s topic is Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases.

Before we talk about these two, we first have to know the difference between them.

Let’s start with Proverbs


Here’s the definition of a Proverb from the dictionary:


a short well-known statement that gives practical advice about life

Proverbs come from everyday life. They are widely used sayings that are short but full of meaning, and they teach us something.

Some examples of Proverbs are:


All that glitters is not gold.

Even if something looks good, be careful because it might not be good for you.

When in Rome, do as the Romans.
This is especially useful for travelers and backpackers. When you are in a different place or a different culture, follow that place’s own customs.

No man is an island.
You can’t survive or live alone. Everybody needs somebody.

Better late than never.

Although being late for something is bad, being completely absent from it is even worse.

There’s no place like home.

No matter how small or simple your house is, it’s still the most comfortable place for you.

If you’d like to see more examples of Proverbs, just click this link:

Now let’s go to Proverbial Phrases

Proverbial Phrases

Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases are similar but not the same. First of all, they are both idioms. They are widely accepted sayings passed on from the old generation to the new generation by word of mouth.

The difference between the two is that a Proverb is a fixed expression. A Proverbial Phrase, on the other hand, may be changed depending on the situation.

However, as every longtime learner of English knows, any kind of idiom is best learned not by analyzing it deeply and word by word but by accepting the meaning of the phrase as a whole.

For example, if you take the idiom “raining cats and dogs” too literally, you might go crazy.

all images courtesy of stock.xchng

"Raining cats and dogs" in fact means raining heavily. 

Another example of taking idioms too seriously is in the classic film “Lion King.” There’s a scene where Timon and Pumbaa sees Simba for the first time.

This image by athor1994 is available at <a ref="">under a <a href=""> Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0

Timon: He looks blue.

Pumbaa: I'd say brownish-gold.

Timon: No, no, no. I mean he's depressed.

Pumbaa: Oh.

Some Examples

Here are some examples of Proverbial Phrases:

#1. Long time no see.

Most people know what this expression means. It’s just the short version of the sentence:

I haven’t seen you in a long time.


It’s been a long time since I saw you last.

Because of its unusual grammar, it’s a bit hard to explain this greeting using the rules of English.

The phrase “Long time no see” was first recorded in print in 1901. A Native American makes the greeting:

"Good morning. Long time no see you."

This usage is an example of pidgin* English.

*pidgin = a fusion of 2 or more languages

Some people also believe that “Long time no see” was influenced by the Chinese language. This is because there is a similar phrase in Cantonese (好耐冇見) and Mandarin (好久不見/好久不见) which mean “Very long time no see.”

Lastly, there are people who notice its similarity to other American slang expressions such as:

  • No can do ( = that request is not within my capabilities. I cannot do it)

  • Chop-chop ( = quickly)

#2. First come, first served

This is a very popular guideline used in many different establishments around the world. It’s also sometimes expressed as “FCFS,” “First In First Served,” or “First Come First Choice.

You can see it in restaurants, supermarkets, movie theaters, taxi stands or anywhere where there are lines (US) or queues (UK) where people wait for service.

But be careful, because people often use this phrase the wrong way as:

First come, first serve. = X

We should always make the second Verbserve” in p.p. (Past Participle) form. Like these:  





Why? Because it must have a Passive meaning: to be served.

This Proverbial Phrase isn’t wrong grammar at all. It’s just a shortened form where we omit some parts.

The complete sentence is:

The first to come is the first to be served.

(The) first (to) come (is the) first (to be) served.

==>  First come, first served.

#3. Practice Makes Perfect

This phrase is what we tell someone to mean:

Doing something over and over again is the only way for you to learn to do it well.


You will become better at something if you practice.

It was first used between the 1550s and 1560s. Its original version was “Use makes perfect.” And the Latin version was: “Uses promptos facit.”

From the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (1761).

#4. Easy come, easy go.

This phrase means that something you easily acquire may be easily spent or wasted. It is usually said when someone has already given up and accepted losing something.

For example,

A group of young people went to the casino in the evening. They won some money but spent all of it around midnight.

Easy come, easy go,” they said.  

Easy come, easy go” is an example of parallel phrases, which is in fact a very common structure for Proverbs and such, in which the whole expression comes in 2 similar parts.

Just like “First come, first served.

#5. Hope Springs Eternal

Our last phrase means that people will keep on hoping even though their situation is hopeless.

It was originally used by British poet Alexander Pope in his poem “Essay on Man” in 1734. The complete original version is:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

This phrase brings some confusion to learners because they have been taught to put an Adverb after an Action Verb.

Like so:

Verb + Adverb


They talk softly.

He ate hurriedly.

She speaks English fluently.


So, the correct expression should be: “Hope springs eternally.

But in this Proverbial Phrase, it’s Ok to use an Adjective because the word “spring” is actually acting as a Linking Verb. The whole sentence is similar to:

Hope is eternal.

Some Action Verbs can also become Linking Verbs:











All the Verbs above can be used as Linking Verbs. If so, they will be followed by an Adjective, not an Adverb.

In Summary

In summary, Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases are fun and interesting to learn, as long as you don’t take them seriously. If you start to over-analyze them, you will surely get a headache but you will never figure them out.

Remember: they are idioms. And the only way to learn idioms is to accept them first, and ask (grammar) questions later! 


Hope You Learned Something!

Keep on learning !

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