Don’t count your chickens: proverbs in English (2)

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by Liz Walter

In my last post, I introduced a few proverbs that are common in English, especially in conversations. In this one, I am going to look at some common uses of proverbs: to give warnings, to criticize, and to comfort people. I mentioned last month that some proverbs are so well-known that we often use only the first part. Where this is the case, I will show the part that can be omitted in brackets.

Let’s start with some warnings. A good one is Don’t count your chickens (before they hatch/before they are hatched)’. This means that we should be careful not to rely on something that we may not get or that may not happen. A very similar proverb is ‘A bird in the hand (is worth two in the bush), meaning that something we already have is more valuable than something we think we may get in the future.

There are a few proverbs relating to being careful before you act. A simple one is Look before you leap. Similarly, we say ‘Better (to be) safe than sorry’, meaning that it is best to be cautious if risk-taking could have a bad consequence. If we want to warn someone not to try to do too much, we often sayDon’t bite off more than you can chew. We might warn someone to be strict with a child, employee, etc., by saying Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile’, meaning that if you give them a small amount of freedom, they will try to get much more.

Proverbs can often sound critical, especially if they are directed at the person you are talking to. For instance, if someone justifies a bad action by saying that it was a response to another bad action, we might tell them sternly that Two wrongs don’t make a right. Similarly, when we say People (who live) in glass houses (shouldn’t throw stones), we mean that people shouldn’t criticize other people for bad qualities they have themselves. And if someone complains that the poor quality of their work was caused by substandard equipment, we sometimes show cynicism by saying ‘A bad workman always blames his tools’.

Proverbs aren’t all moralistic; some of them are designed to make us feel better. For instance, if someone is disappointed because they are making slow progress, we can say Rome wasn’t built in a day, meaning that worthwhile things often take a long time. Similarly, if someone is frustrated because they can’t work out how to achieve something, we can say ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’, meaning that if they want it enough, a solution will be found. And if someone is worried because something has gone wrong or they have upset someone, we can sayYou can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, meaning that it is impossible to achieve things without some bad effects.

I hope you find these proverbs useful. Do you have the same ones in your languages? Look out for a final post about proverbs next month!


54 thoughts on “Don’t count your chickens: proverbs in English (2)

  1. Hi,
    The word ‘that’ was supposed to be ‘than’ in the text below (2nd paragraph of the article):

    // A very similar proverb is ‘A bird in the hand (is worth two in the bush)’, meaning that something we already have is more valuable that [sic] something we think we may get in the future. //


    1. Khalid Anis

      Respectable Madam,
      Liz Walter,
      You have very nicely explained all the Twelve Proverbs. All the Proverbs that you have selected for explanation are of great importance in our daily life.
      Learning & using of these Proverbs in Speaking & Writing will make more beautiful to the Language.
      Thanks for your support & Help in learning English Language.
      God bless you.

  2. Lê Chí Nguyên

    You may have a typo in the last sentence of the second paragraph:
    “…something we already have is more valuable that…” -> more valuable than

      1. Khalid Anis

        Respectable Madam/Sir,
        Deng Diany Achuiel,
        Thanks for appreciating my comment, but it’s truth that your way of writing is appealing, interesting, simple & easy to understand.
        The subject or topic that you take for explanation are interesting & are widely needed in our daily conversation & writing.
        Yours Sincerely
        Khalid Anis.

  3. Michael Gamble

    A bird in the Strand is worth two in Shepherd’s Bush – or – Phloccinoccinihilipilification. Thank you Leader of the House.

  4. Henry BORET

    Hello Liz,
    A lot of similar proverbs in french. We just say : “do not sale the bear’s skin before it’s killed” instead of “don’t count your chicken…” and “Give them a finger they’ll eat your whole arm” instead of “give them an inch….”. Thank you for what you’re doing.

    1. Nelly Krasnoselskaya

      Hello everybody! In Russian, we have the same proverb about a finger 🙂 and we have a similar one about the birds: A titmouse in a hand is better than a crane in a sky) so we use some specific birds)

  5. Francisco

    Thank you for all the proverbs provided. I have found the article amusing and instructive for me, a foreigner.
    In Spanish we do have some of them; in fact, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is identical.
    By the way, just for you to know, the proverb ‘Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile’ in Spanish would be like this: “Give them the hand and they’ll take the arm.”

    Isn’t it insteresting?

    Best regards!

  6. Joao Reis

    I would like to say thank you so much. When I grow up my father always give advice using his own proverb. This proverb does not exist in Portuguese. Today, I discovered a very similar proverb in English for my father’s proverb. Nowadays he is bedridden does not recognize us anymore, but all the family, deep inside, listening to his message through his proverb. I am so thankful to know how to say it in English “Where there’s a will, there’s a way’”. Thank you so much Liz, you make my day.

  7. FCE learner

    There’s a error in the fourth paragraph,I think the word “cynicism” should be changed to ” criticism”.Am I right?

    1. Liz Walter

      No, I did mean cynicism – I wanted to say that we show that we don’t really believe in their excuse. Hope that helps!

  8. Tatiana Balandina

    I’d like to thank you again and again for your awesome posts. The comments are also very interesting. We live in different countries, our languages are also very different. But the proverbs are very much alike. It seems we have a lot in common, no matter what language we are speaking. Thanks a lot!

  9. Allison

    Hi I’m peruvian woman and I’d like to say thanks for this post it’ll help me to develop my english skills.

  10. Cindeh calistus

    Thank so much i will like to appreciate you for this stylish proverb it is so interesting ,,,,,,,,,,I am waiting for next one cheers.

  11. Khalid Anis

    Respectable Sir/Madam,
    With due respect I would like to bring into your notice that in the Quiz “Words About Eating In A Restaurant”.
    The Answer to the Question “Choosing food as a separate items from a menu (=list of food), not as a meal with a fixed price”.
    My answer & the correct answer are same, with No Spelling Mistake.
    I wrote ” a la carte ” & I found that the correct Answer is also ” a la carte “.
    So please tell me what is my mistake in it ? I hope you have understood my point, Please.
    I hope you will reply me, to correct my mistake if there is any, Please.
    Thanking you in anticipation.
    Yours Sincerely
    Khalid Anis.

    1. Hello Khalid

      Thank you for your message. I believe the problem might be that you need a special character: à

      You are right that you should be able to answer this question without using special characters. We are working on improvements to our quizzes, so we will consider this point.

      Best wishes

      1. Khalid Anis

        Respectable Madam/Sir,
        Thanks for the reply.
        I understood the point, it’s because of special character.
        Yours Sincerely
        Khalid Anis.

  12. ghaffar

    better (to be) safe than sorry.
    it is more appropriate proverb at this era of COVID-19.
    it should be promulgated as a general public message.

      1. Khalid Anis

        Respectable Madam, Liz Walter, Good Morning, With due respect I will say that at the very right time you have reminded us about the usage of the Proverb ” Better to be safe than sorry “. It is very appropriate proverb at this time of year of the COVID-19 Pademic. The Proverb ” Better to be safe than sorry ” must be Promulgated as a Public Service Message. I hope & wish that if this Proverb is implemented in actuality in our society it can safe Thousands Of Peoples lives if I am not wrong Millions of Peoples Lives from it’s very early going from this world. Very nice thing you said at the right time. All the Proverb that you had given in the blog of ” Don’t count your chicken before they hatch/ before they are hatched ” were excellent indeed. Respectable Madam, Thanks for helping & supporting us in learning English Language. Thanking you in anticipation. High Regards To You & To All The Team Members. Yours Sincerely. Khalid Anis.

        On Fri, 3 Apr 2020 15:33 About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog, wrote:

        > Liz Walter commented: “Yes, definitely!” >

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