What Is an Idiom? (And How Does It Differ From a Proverb or an Adage?)
  • 3-minute read
  • 2nd November 2022

What Is an Idiom? (And How Does It Differ From a Proverb or an Adage?)

Idioms are very common in English. They are frequently used phrases or sentences that use figurative language to give a widely understood meaning. They are often found in speech and in creative writing, such as poetry, songwriting, and novels.

Idioms can be fun to use, and, if you’re learning English as a second language, learning to include idioms properly will help your speaking and writing flow like a native speaker’s.

Examples of Idioms

Break a leg.

If you tell someone to break a leg, you’re wishing them good luck.

It was a piece of cake.

If something is a piece of cake, it’s easy.

You’re skating on thin ice.

This means that you’re in a risky situation that could quickly go wrong.

Sarah completed the work at the 11th hour.

To do something at the 11th hour is to do something at the last moment.

I twisted Kate’s arm, so she’s coming to the party tonight.

If you twist someone’s arm, you convince them to do something.

Henry was chasing rainbows.

This means that Henry is trying to do something that isn’t possible or realistic.

Children aren’t usually excellent chefs, but Ben’s delicious meals show that he is the exception that proves the rule.

This phrase refers to a fact that is unusual and proves that there is a general rule, standard, or expectation that opposes it.

I couldn’t care less.


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If you say you couldn’t care less about something, it means that you don’t care about that thing.

Proverbs

Proverbs and idioms are not the same. Proverbs are short and well-known sayings that usually give a piece of wisdom, advice, or truth.

Examples of proverbs are:

A jack of all trades is a master of none.

This refers to someone who has gained skills in lots of different areas instead of becoming an expert in one area.

A leopard never changes its spots.

This means that people can’t change their character or personality.

Adages

Adages are similar to proverbs – and still different from idioms! – but they’re less commonly used in everyday life. Adages have often been around longer than proverbs, sometimes even for centuries, and are widely accepted to be true.

Examples of adages are:

Better safe than sorry.

This means that it’s better to be careful when doing something so that it doesn’t cause errors or problems in the future.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

This means that getting to know someone well can cause you to lose respect for them because you see their bad traits.

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