Ace English with Valerie Ng

Diogenes - renowned sage of ancient times

Words from Sages - through the ages

As in every language, English is rich with wise sayings.

Here are some of the most common ones you'll hear in North America and Britain.

Listen along with the audio clips provided to get a sense of intonation and pronunciation.

  • "What is the difference between a poor man and a rich man, who lives like a poor man?"
    • Meaning: There is no difference between the two when it comes to lifestyle. Philosophically speaking, there is no point in being rich and having money, if one does not use it to enjoy life. That's not to say that one should be extravagant or financially irresponsible, either.

      Extravagant means overspending and buying items that aren't necessary, and verges on wasting money. It's important to be financially responsible and not financially irresponsible, and to take care to watch how one spends.

  • "Just do it."

      Meaning: This is my favourite marketing slogan conceived by the Nike sports brand. As a tennis enthusiast, I tried "just doing it" and it worked. This is a similar expression to the traditional British saying "He who hesitates is lost". In sports or when performing, over thinking takes up valuable action and reaction time, and timing is everything.

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  • "The flowers of tomorrow are the seeds you plant today."
    • Meaning: This is similar to the saying “what goes around, comes around”.

      Being kind and compassionate can help forge stable and meaningful relationships for the years to come. Not being nice and being unhelpful has different consequences. In a workplace situation, this could lead to unemployment.

    • "One principle eliminates a thousand decisions."
      • Meaning: A principle is something that someone believes in strongly.

        It's easy for an individual to make a decision if she/he is clear about what their values or wants are. For example, they don't have to think about whether to mash, bake, roast or fry a potato if they don't eat potatoes.

        Note, there's a similar word, principal, which means "the lead person". The principal of a school is the head of a school, or the principal player in a film is the leading actor or actress.

      • To remember which one to use, try associating the "a" in principal with being first, in front or ace.

    • "Words should be weighed and not counted."
      • Meaning:  Words should be chosen carefully. They should convey or express what the writer or speaker wants to say. The listener and reader should seek meaning rather than praise anyone just because they use a lot of words.

    • "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."
      • Meaning:  The individual is advised to listen to information that he or she may not find palatable, and to not dismiss it outright. Otherwise, they could lose out on learning something of value to them. "To lose out" means to lose the chance to have something. A similar expression is "to miss out".

        The word "palatable" can be used to describe information as well as food. For example, "yesterday’s pizza doesn’t look so palatable right now" or, "you may not find it palatable to take in, but it's important that you do so".

    • "Beware the anger of a patient man."
      • Meaning: If an individual's actions can stir the anger of someone who is known to be patient, then that individual may wish to look carefully at his/her actions.

    • "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword"
      • Meaning: A good example of this is that of a Roman soldier who was more likely to pass on a battlefield than in civilian life, as sword-wielding was his profession, and he was more likely to be felled by someone else's sword. Nowadays, this saying is a warning to an individual who is belligerent or violent and seeks arguments continually. He or she will always experience aggression and violence from those around them, and may meet an unfortunate fate. Belligerent means "war-like"

    • "There's no use in crying over spilled milk"
      • Meaning: What's done is done and no amount of crying can undo it.

    • "A stitch in time, saves nine"
      • Meaning: If you sort out a problem immediately, it may well save extra work further down the line.

    • "A bird in hand is better than two in the bush"
      • Meaning:  This proverb advises that when one bird has been caught, it may not be worth trying to capture the other bird that is still hiding in the bush at the risk of losing the one in hand.

        Another way of looking at it is that it is better to have one bird than none at all.

    • "The proof of the pudding is in the eating"
      • Meaning: In the 1600's, pudding was a savoury dish made with sausage. Savoury means salty rather than sugary. Nowadays, puddings are usually sweet treats. In England, some pudding, like Yorkshire pudding, is savoury and is still eaten as part of a meal rather than for dessert.

        This proverb is a reminder that something can only be judged as being successful when it has actually been verified through personal experience.

    • "We must strike while the iron is hot"
      • Meaning:  In the olden days, a smith would melt compounded metals to shape them into a sword, pot or other item. Once the compound hardens, it's impossible to work with it at all. "To strike while the iron is hot" is a commonly found expression in the business world. It means that, once an opportunity is identified, the company or individual must act quickly to take advantage of it.

    • "Actions speak louder than words"
      • Meaning: This saying means that anyone can talk, but only those who act, when called to do so, prove themselves.

        A similar expression is "he walks the walk", that is, he walks, or takes action, rather than just talks.

        Another take on this saying is that a person's character is more apparent through his actions than through his words.

    • "Barking dogs seldom bite"
      • Meaning:  While a dog is barking, it cannot and does not bite.

        In the business world, the more commonly found expression is "Don't worry, his bark is worse than his bite" meaning that the individual is only threatening at face value, but unlikely to act in a harmful way.

    • "Better the devil you know"
      • Meaning: This commonly used expression is understood even though it's not a complete sentence. The long version is likely to be "[It's] better [to choose] the devil you know than the devil you don't know" meaning that sometimes, it's safer to go with a situation that you are familiar with, even if it's far from ideal, than to opt for a route that may turn out to be worse.

    • "Waste not, want not"
      • Meaning: If an individual is neither extravagant nor wastes time or money, he or she will never lack money or want for anything. "Want for" means "to lack" or "to be without".

    • "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
      • Meaning:  An individual must sometimes take risks in order to gain something. A similar saying to this popular expression is "You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs". Some change or action has to take place. An omelette is a popular dish served throughout the day with eggs being the chief ingredient.

        In the US, the spelling is "omlet", whereas, in England, the french spelling "omelette" is used.

    • "Too many cooks spoil the broth"
      • Meaning: The quality of a dish can be impacted when there are too many competing tastes and visions. This is a great reminder that a bigger team is not always better, and that decision-by-committee can often result in a sub optimal outcome. At the very least, it causes delays. A committee is a work term for a group of individuals brought together to work on specific projects.

    • "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."
      • Meaning:  It is easy to tell someone something, but to have them believe it is an entirely different matter.

    • "Don't cross the bridge until you come to it"
      • Meaning:  There's no point in thinking about something that's unlikely, or is not a current possibility. Otherwise, it's a waste of time to do so.

        Many English people, when asked what they'll do in an imaginary situation, will say "I will cross that bridge if (or when) I come to it."

    • "Think carefully before burning your bridges"
      • Meaning: In military history, many leaders have burned bridges so their armies cannot retreat and therefore become more motivated to fight.

        This saying advises individuals to think before making a decision which will make it impossible for them to go back. For example, telling a boss what you think of them, before walking out, should only be done if one is sure that one will never return to the company.

    • "Let sleeping dogs lie."
      • Meaning: A past situation, or one that people have forgotten about, is best left unmentioned if it could cause a problem needlessly. Another interpretation for this favourite English saying is that, if no action is warranted or necessary, then, the subject should be left alone.

    • "One shouldn't miss the forest for the trees."
      • Meaning: Sometimes it's easy to be so focused on small details that one may miss the larger context. For example, I know of some editors who checked and double-checked the contents, but forgot to spellcheck the title of the article before it was published. The title contained a glaring grammar mistake.

    • "Persuasion is better than force."
      • Meaning: Better cooperation and, therefore, results can be gained through persuasion than through coercion. A similar saying to this is "The pen is mightier than the sword"..

    • "Rome wasn't built in a day"
      • Meaning: Great achievements take time to complete.

    • "Haste makes waste"
      • Meaning: Mistakes can often be made when something is done in haste, or in a rush. Fixing these mistakes may use up even more time and cost than if the project was completed mindfully, in the first place.

    • "All's well that ends well"
      • Meaning: Even though there may have been difficulties, the end result is all that matters if the outcome is positive. There's no point in reviewing those difficulties except to learn, and certainly there's no point in being upset by the setbacks that came up along the way. A setback is an obstacle or a challenge.

    • "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle"
      • Meaning: Enlightening, informing and helping another human being does not cost an individual anything. In fact, it makes the world a better place.

    • "Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas."
      • Meaning: It's best to choose one's company wisely and to be close to people who are good to be around. Being with a "bad crowd" can lead an individual to trouble.

    • "It takes two to make a quarrel."
      • Meaning:  Rarely can, or should, one party be solely to blame when there is a quarrel. A quarrel is an argument. A similar expression is "it takes two to tango.".

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