Adages, Proverbs & Aphorisms: Definitions & Examples

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will define adages, proverbs, and aphorisms. We will also look at a few common examples of each of these and discuss their meanings.

Adages, Proverbs, and Aphorisms

'Curiosity killed the cat.' 'Don't cross the bridge until you come to it.' 'People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.' We've all heard sayings like these hundreds of times. They are just part of life. But how often do we stop to think about what these little phrases really are and what they really mean? Probably not too often, right?

In this lesson, we're going to define adages, proverbs, and aphorisms and look at a few examples of each. Even though many people use these three terms interchangeably, we will see that there are actually subtle differences among them.


Adages are short sayings that express universal truths. Most adages have been around for a long, long time, and although most people can recite them, no one really knows who first said them. Let's look at a few common adages and explore their meanings.

  • 'Where there is smoke, there is fire.' This adage simply means that when something seems out of sorts or problematic, it probably is.
  • 'The early bird catches the worm.' While this adage is probably true for birds, it also refers to humans who are ready and willing to go after what they want. They usually get it.
  • 'Measure twice, cut once.' Carpenters and tailors will agree wholeheartedly with this adage, but even people who don't have to physically cut anything can appreciate its warning to double check and be careful before making any permanent changes.
  • 'Better safe than sorry.' Anyone who has ever taken a careless risk can attest to the truth of this statement.


Proverbs are similar to adages. They, too, are short statements that express truth, but proverbs usually offer some sort of practical and useful advice or lesson for daily life in images that suggest home and family. Let's examine a few.

  • 'Don't cry over spilled milk.' In other words, accidents happen, and there's no use fretting over them. Just clean up the mess and move on.
  • 'A stitch in time saves nine.' This proverb encourages us to fix problems while they are small rather than ignoring them until they get bigger and more difficult to solve. One stitch in a shirt or pair of pants can prevent a greater tear that would take nine stitches to fix.
  • 'Don't rock the boat.' Most us of have been told this on occasion, especially by people who are comfortable in a situation and don't want to see changes.
  • 'Let sleeping dogs lie.' What happens when you poke a sleeping dog? You usually find yourself confronted by a growling dog. This proverb cautions us against stirring up trouble.


Like adages and proverbs, aphorisms express truth, but they do so in a more elegant, literary, and philosophical manner. Aphorisms often focus on moral instruction (how to choose the good and avoid the bad), and they can be quite witty and even humorous. Below are a few aphorisms.

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