Proverbs, Idioms and Axioms, Oh My!

Treat others as you want to be treated. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And whatever you do, don’t cry over spilled milk.

Proverbs, idioms and axioms can spice up your writing (and make conversations more interesting). But what are they? Here’s a quick refresher:

  • An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from its constituent elements (as in “kick the bucket”)
  • A proverb is a popular saying, usually of an unknown or ancient origin (such as, “a friend in need is a friend indeed”)
  • An axiom is a self-evident truth that requires no proof (e.g, “blood is thicker than water”)

For me, writing blog posts is a great way to blow off some steam and networking events are a great place to chew the fat – both provide opportunities to use proverbs, idioms and axioms. The reason these sayings sound familiar to you is because you’ve heard or read them over and over again throughout your life. You know the context, but not the origin. You swear you’re never going to talk like that when you’re growing up, then you whip out a saying your grandparents used to use. No? You will someday.

Here are some of the more common expressions I can recall off the top of my head. I thought it would make a fun post to share some of these – maybe it will jog an idea for your next writing project. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments. And if you know any fun facts about the sayings, please share them (for example, you can apparently judge the value of a horse by looking at its teeth):

  • A stitch in time saves nine
  • Blow off steam
  • Can’t hold a candle to
  • Close, but no cigar
  • Eyes bigger than stomach
  • It’s coming down to the wire
  • It’s time to face the music
  • That’s a horse of a different color
  • Somebody dropped a dime on him
  • A word to the wise
  • A leopard cannot change his spots
  • A fool and his money are soon parted
  • A penny saved is a penny earned
  • This too shall pass
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
  • Birds of a feather flock together
  • Cheaters never prosper
  • Cold hands, warm heart
  • Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched
  • Don’t upset the apple cart
  • Fight fire with fire
  • Finders keepers, losers weepers
  • Great minds think alike
  • Honesty is the best policy
  • If the shoe fits, wear it
  • If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen
  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
  • It takes one to know one
  • Keep your chin up
  • Less is more
  • Treat others as you want to be treated
  • Misery loves company
  • All publicity is good publicity (so not true)
  • Money talks (BS walks)
  • Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today

What do you think? Do idioms, proverbs and axioms make writing and conversation more fun or more confusing? Please add your favorite sayings in the comments below.

(Image Credit: 365, Beverages… no use crying over it! by Andrea_44)


About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.


  1. Awesome list, I hadn’t heard a few of those before. A few more that I remembered as I was reading:

    The early bird catches the worm
    Brevity is the soul of wit
    Every cloud has a silver lining
    Jack of all trades, master of none

    You forget how many of these phrases there are.

  2. While this is a fun list, I think using these terms in any kind of published writing should be avoided. They are cliches. While occasional use might be appropriate under some circumstances, overuse of cliches usually indicates stale and flabby writing, and thus stale and flabby thinking.

    And, by the way, “blood is thicker than water?” So what? So is cement.

  3. I always loved these ones,

    Apple of my eye
    The pot calling the kettle black
    and of course: act your shoe size!

    I think these are great and agree that over use does kill the saying but I love using them on my boyfriend’s kids and one day on my little girl. Also it’s interesting because to us these sayings are “old hat” but to outside cultures they’ve never heard them so their rather enjoyable. In fact the show ‘Modern Family’ uses this a lot when scripting for Gloria’s character because she doesn’t always understand these sayings or pronounce them correctly. This then makes me think of Shakespeare’s play on words. Thanks for the remind that language is in deed fun and not always filled with PhD’d jargon like, “discourse.” What a silly and very overused word.

  4. I am a journalism student at the University of Oregon and I have continually been instructed to avoid using cliche phrases. I enjoyed reading your list and I have to agree that these phrases definitely portray vivid meaning, but it seems that the academic community prefers writers to be original with their word choice instead of turning to these overused phrases. The argument against and for the use of cliches is interesting, however, because readers seem to be attached to these classic sayings.

    • I certainly don’t want to upset the apple cart, but that advice seems silly. I guess I could come up with my own words, but isn’t picking an appropriate saying (or cliche) equally creative? I know it’s more efficient, and in the end, a stitch in time saves nine. Ha.

  5. Great Post. As a writer and literacy tutor, I find idioms, even in all their triteness, can add colour and character to communications — especially when we get them wrong. For years I had been saying (thankfully never writing) the phrase: “Ten to 0ne and half dozen of the other”. I finally asked my husband how this saying came to be as it made no sense to me, even though I did know when to use it. WELL, now I know the real saying is “six of one and half dozen of the other” – makes so much more sense — but the chances are 10 to 1 you got to know a lot more about me (I come from an “ESL” immigrant family who constantly mixed and mixed-up their metaphors and sayings) when I got it all wrong. Now “throw the horse over the fence some hay”, will ya?

    • Ann, I always thought that the saying was, “Six to one, a half dozen to another”, meaning that two people were saying the same thing, only in a different way.
      And Jeremy, I always thought that “Looking a gift horse in the mouth” had something to do with the gift of a Trojan horse and the sacking of the city of Troy.
      Or am I splitting hairs?”
      i’m writing this reply in December of 2012, so I’m sure that both Ann and Jeremy have moved on, but if there’s another “Johnny come lately” who’s stumbled onto this site and would like to discuss the meanings of some of these old sayings, I’ll check back once in awhile.

  6. An addition to the proverb Great minds think alike I often heard from my grandmother went like this, Great minds think alike and fools seldom differ

  7. Hows about, variety is the spice of life

    No news is good news
    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence
    and of course the very contraversial, you can’t have your cake and eat it too—I think you can.

  8. Fun list…and to think I stumbled upon it whilst seeking a definitive answer to the difference between an axiom and a proverb, thinking the latter strictly biblical…a few to add:

    God looks out for drunks and fools
    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
    A stitch in time saves nine
    Water under the bridge (or over the dam)
    All good things must end

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