20 American Proverbs to Make Your English Sound More Fluent
A proverb is a saying that’s more than just words. This is because proverbs carry wisdom passed down through generations.
At first read, most proverbs seem quite strange.
You may wonder why some American is talking about leading horses to water or skinning cats, but I can assure you: they’re not really talking about horses or cats—and no animals were harmed in the making of these proverbs.
As a beginner English language learner, American proverbs might be a little bit beyond your reach, but if you’re a little more advanced, or just ready for a fun language challenge, here’s our list of 20 of the classics.
- 20 Classic American Proverbs
- 1. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs
- 2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
- 3. Don’t count your chickens until they hatch
- 4. There’s more than one way to skin a cat
- 5. Strike while the iron is hot
- 6. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
- 7. Never trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you
- 8. Paddle your own canoe
- 9. Bitter pills may have blessed effects
- 10. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill
- 11. It’s always darkest before the dawn
- 12. Every cloud has a silver lining
- 13. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones
- 14. There are plenty more fish in the sea
- 15. Take it with a grain of salt
- 16. The early bird gets the worm
- 17. From little acorns mighty oaks do grow
- 18. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
- 19. Good things come to those who wait
- 20. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade
- What American Proverbs Can Offer an English Language Learner
- And One More Thing...
20 Classic American Proverbs
1. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs
Meaning: If you don’t take the first step—and take a little risk—it’s impossible to complete your goal.
An omelet is a classic American breakfast dish that includes at least two eggs and add-ins like bell peppers, broccoli, onions, spinach and cheese. It’s completely impossible to make an omelet if you don’t break the eggs first. Breaking the eggs is the first step to your end goal of eating a delicious breakfast.
It is also usually used to mean that sometimes, negative or difficult things need to happen before you can achieve something important.
If your goal is to become fluent in English, you must start learning the basics—you must break the egg. And if you make a few mistakes along the way, that’s just a part of the learning process!
2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Meaning: Don’t put everything you’ve got (time or money) into one thing because if that one thing doesn’t work out, you’ll be left with nothing.
As you know, eggs are delicate (easy to break). If you happen to trip and fall as you’re carrying a basket full of eggs, it’s likely that all of those eggs will break as they fly out of the basket and land on the hard ground.
You’ll likely hear this proverb when someone is overly excited about an investment opportunity that sounds too good to be true.
Maybe your friend just told you that he’s going to invest his life savings in a new company that’s designing the first flying car. He tells you that if he invests $10,000 right now that his $10,000 will turn into $100,000,000 as soon as the car is on the market.
You might say to him, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket!”
3. Don’t count your chickens until they hatch
Meaning: Don’t assume something is working out or happening until it actually does.
Is it just me, or is anyone else in the mood for breakfast?
This proverb offers a great piece of advice.
A farmer might have 12 eggs, but until 12 chicks hatch out of those eggs, the farmer doesn’t actually know how many chicks will be born.
The takeaway here is to not get ahead of your expectations—otherwise you’ll risk disappointment.
4. There’s more than one way to skin a cat
Meaning: There is more than one way to do or accomplish something.
We know… this is a weird one.
To use language learning as an example, there are clearly many different approaches and resources that are beneficial and effective for learning English. Since every language learner is different, there’s no real one-size-fits-all way to learn a language.
On your language learning journey, you’ve probably been told “this is the best way” or “this is the best resource,” but “the best” is really whatever personally works for you. You have to figure out the best way to skin the cat—figuratively, of course!
5. Strike while the iron is hot
Meaning: Act quickly when a good opportunity is presented to you.
Sometimes in life, you have to be decisive (make a decision with confidence) and trust your instincts. If you think too much about something, the opportunity may just pass you by.
Take this scenario:
Your aunt planned a trip to New York City with her friend, but her friend had to cancel at the last minute. She calls you and asks if you’d like to go since she doesn’t want to go alone and has an extra ticket.
This is where you’d strike when the iron is hot! If you’re indecisive and take too long to respond, she’ll likely ask someone else to go and you’ll miss your chance to put your English skills to the test.
6. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Meaning: You should be thankful for what you have instead of risking losing it in the pursuit of something that you don’t have.
Sometimes we take for granted what we have, and also don’t realize what we have until it’s gone. This proverb claims that the most valuable thing you have is what you actually have!
For example, say you have $100. You could just put this $100 into your savings account, or you could take it to Las Vegas to try to turn it into $1000. But it’s likely that you’ll lose it. So stick with the bird (that $100) in your hand.
7. Never trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you
Meaning: Don’t go looking for problems, making things difficult for yourself.
If you’re a beginner English learner, you’ll only be creating more trouble for yourself if you try and use resources that are meant for advanced learners.
You’ve probably noticed that the word “trouble” is repeated four times in this proverb—twice as verbs and twice as nouns.
In English, many words can be used as different parts of speech.
8. Paddle your own canoe
Meaning: Be independent and don’t rely on others.
This proverb can state a truth about a person.
Alex has always paddled his own canoe.
Or, this proverb can offer advice:
If you want to succeed in life, you need to learn to paddle your own canoe.
As you continue to study and practice English, eventually you’ll be able to paddle your own canoe. One day, you’ll be fluent and won’t need the help of language learning classes, lessons, teachers or practice material!
9. Bitter pills may have blessed effects
Meaning: The remedy or solution to a problem might not be pleasant, but the end result can be wonderful.
For example, studying English for several hours every day might not always be enjoyable but all that “bitter” effort will be rewarded when you’re able to communicate in English with confidence.
The same goes for exercise. It may not be fun while you’re doing it, but if you stick with it, you’ll be healthier.
10. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill
Meaning: Don’t make a big deal out of something small or minor.
You know that feeling when you’ve spilled your coffee, and suddenly you’re in the worst mood?
Or, when your morning yoga class gets canceled and now your entire day is ruined?
Or, how about when your boyfriend is 10 minutes late to pick you up for your date, and you tell him you don’t want to go out with him anymore.
If you accidentally used the wrong verb conjugation when you responded to your English teacher’s question, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. We all make mistakes, even native speakers! Instead of beating yourself up and making your mistake a big deal, simply recognize your error, correct it and move on.
11. It’s always darkest before the dawn
Meaning: A situation tends to feel the worst right before it gets better.
This philosophical proverb is a good reminder that darkness is always followed by light.
At some point during your language learning journey, you’ll likely encounter a phase, hopefully, a very short one, where you feel like you’ve hit a wall, you’re frustrated, you don’t feel like you’re progressing or you feel like you just want to give up.
This is the darkest moment!
But, if you stick with it and keep practicing and putting in the effort, the dawn will eventually come!
12. Every cloud has a silver lining
Meaning: Despite a bad situation or event, there’s likely something good that’ll come out of it.
For example, say you’re on a trip to Turkey and the day you planned to see the wonderful rock formations at Cappadocia, it’s pouring rain. So you decide to camp out in a coffee shop with your computer, and during that day, over espressos, you meet someone that you end up in a long-term relationship with.
You couldn’t see the rock formations, but you ended up happy and in love.
That’s the silver lining!
13. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones
Meaning: Don’t criticize others for things we ourselves do.
This proverb advises against being a hypocrite.
For example, this proverb would apply to a classmate who’s being mean to someone because they didn’t know what a certain word meant in English, even though this classmate often makes a lot of mistakes in English.
14. There are plenty more fish in the sea
Meaning: There are more people available to date.
This proverb is mainly used to offer condolences (sympathy) to someone who has just broken up with their significant other. This proverb suggests that the heartbroken person shouldn’t worry too much because there are plenty of other potential partners out there.
This proverb might be incorporated into a conversation like this:
Your friend: Shelly just broke up with me. I’m going to be alone forever!
You: I’m so sorry she broke up with you. But, you shouldn’t worry too much. There are plenty more fish in the sea.
15. Take it with a grain of salt
Meaning: Don’t take something someone says or does too seriously.
This proverb can be used when someone is telling you something that probably isn’t entirely true. In this case, you’d take what they say with a grain of salt.
We all know someone who always exaggerates or doesn’t tell the entire truth. These are the types of people that we usually take what they say with a grain of salt. These are also the types of people that we tell others to take with a grain of salt.
16. The early bird gets the worm
Meaning: If you want to be successful, start early in the day before anyone else.
This proverb advises us to get up early, seize the day and take advantage of opportunities. Success is often not rewarded to those who are lazy!
Often the most successful people are those who do something before anyone else does. Really successful people also tend to wake up early! (Some also stay up really late, but that’s another story.)
Success takes hard work and time, and the earlier you wake up, the more time you have to work—or study and practice your English.
17. From little acorns mighty oaks do grow
Meaning: Big things can come from small laid plans.
This American proverb reminds us that great people and accomplishments often come from modest (simple) beginnings. This proverb can certainly be applied to your English language learning journey!
You might have started with little to no understanding of the English language, but from these humble beginnings, you have grown into a strong English speaker!
Like a tree that needs sunlight and water to grow, in order to grow as an English learner, you’ll need to support your growth with regular studying and practicing.
18. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Meaning: You can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do.
This strange sounding proverb actually has nothing to do with horses.
It means that you can give someone something that they need (like water in this case), but there’s no way you can force them to use that something (or drink the water) until they’re ready to do it.
In other words, you can’t force someone to do something, even if it’s good for them.
For example, your parents can give you money to attend university, but they can’t make you actually go to class. That decision is totally up to you.
19. Good things come to those who wait
Meaning: Patience is rewarded
Patience is valued in American culture, so this strange sounding proverb tells you that sometimes waiting—although boring—can lead to great outcomes.
For example, say you want to buy a new car. Well, it may take a while because you have to work and save your money. But after a year, you finally have the money and the model you wanted to buy is way better than last year’s model. So the wait was worth it.
20. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade
Meaning: Turn hardship into something good.
In American culture, “lemons” are often bad things. They’re sour and pretty much useless on their own. You’d much rather have a fresh strawberry or an orange.
So, when life gives you lemons (hardship), just squeeze those lemons into a glass, add a little sugar or water, and now you’ve got a delicious and refreshing drink. You’ve turned something bad into something great.
What American Proverbs Can Offer an English Language Learner
Proverbs are short sayings that state a truth or offer a piece of advice.
The literal (word for word) translation of a proverb doesn’t usually match the figurative (not literal) meaning. For this reason, proverbs are often unique to a language.
All languages have their own proverbs.
Proverbs can enhance your English language learning in several ways.
Proverbs offer a glimpse into American culture
Once you’ve passed the beginner level, proverbs can provide a fun, funny and flamboyant (colorful, vibrant or lively) glimpse (a peak or look) into American culture. Many proverbs date back multiple generations (grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond). Some American proverbs are even specific to certain regions.
Similar to slang, proverbs are part of a language that isn’t formally taught.
You’ll likely encounter proverbs in movies, television shows and American literature.
They can help you connect with native English speakers
You’ll definitely impress any native English speaker if you drop (state or say) an American proverb during a conversation! Because you likely won’t find these unique English phrases in a textbook or traditional dictionary, to learn these, you must become immersed in the language itself.
And, unless you’re studying English in the United States, you likely won’t have very many chances to pick up some American proverbs.
They present a fun language challenge
Because proverbs aren’t usually translated literally, to understand many of them requires some intermediate to advanced English language skills. It’s important to continually challenge yourself as an English language learner, though, if you want to reach complete English fluency.
Proverbs are like puzzles.
Trying to figure out and understand the meaning of an American proverb is a great language exercise.
American proverbs are commonly used in casual English conversations. Listen for them when you’re hearing English speakers use their language, or when you’re watching English media like movies or TV shows. Or, use the FluentU language learning program to study English naturally with subtitles videos.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The same way that it’s useful to learn some English slang or informal English for conversation purposes, learning and understanding proverbs will help you connect with native English speakers and American culture on a deeper level.
And to be honest, sometimes there’s nothing more fitting to say to a person in a specific situation than an American proverb!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.