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!


20 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. //


  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

  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)

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