Ask the Editor
Jane Mairs, Director of English language Learning Publishing
The difference between idioms and proverbs
Tuesday October 14th 2014
What is the difference between idioms and proverbs? — Many students, worldwide


An idiom is a commonly used expression with a meaning that is not the same as its literal meaning. In other words, the meaning of an idiom cannot be understood from the meanings of its individual words. Here are some examples of idioms:

  • to be fed up with means to be tired and annoyed about something that has happened over and over
  • to rub someone the wrong way means to irritate someone
  • to do something by the skin of your (my/his/her/our/their) teeth means to do it successfully, but to come close to failure. “She passed the test by the skin of her teeth,” means that she passed, but she nearly failed.



proverb is a short, popular saying that gives advice and expresses a common belief about life.  Here are some examples:

  • Don’t cry over spilled milk.

This is a way of saying that there is no point in worrying about something that has already happened. 

  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. 

This is a way of saying that we shouldn't criticize people for having faults that we have ourselves.  

  • A stitch in time saves nine. 

This is a way of saying that it's better to fix a problem right away than to wait until later when the problem will be harder to fix. 

Like idioms, proverbs have a meaning that is greater than their literal meaning, but in a different way than idioms. The true meaning of a proverb is found by broadening the specifics of the proverb to a message about life in general. And you can often figure out the meaning of a proverb even if you have never heard it before. 

The other difference between idioms and proverbs is that proverbs are usually complete sentences, but idioms are not.