Six pairs of contradictory proverbs


A contradictory image...

A contradictory image...

The first time I saw an activity about Proverbs was in Penny Ur and Andrew Wright’s classic book Five Minute Activities. The activity was very simple (something like “write the proverbs on the board, compare them to proverbs in the students’ language) but extremely popular with students and teachers alike. People just like talking about proverbs I guess. Anyway, here is an updated version. There are six pairs of contradictory English proverbs below. Display these on the board (or on a handout) in a mixed up order – each proverb on a line by itself. Students have to find the pairs of proverbs that contradict each other. They then need to discuss the meaning of the proverbs and say which one they agree with more from each pair. Finally, wrap up with a comparison to existing proverbs in their own language. Neat, huh?


1. Look before you leap.  /  He who hesitates is lost.

2. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  / Out of sight, out of mind.

3. The pen is mightier than the sword.  /  Actions speak louder than words.

4. Better safe than sorry.  /  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

5. Birds of a feather flock together.  / Opposites attract.

6. You’re never too old to learn.  /  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Published in: on May 25, 2009 at 10:44 am  Comments (19)  
Tags: , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very cool window into the contradictory nature of sayings. I bet there are many more! This would serve as a good intro into presenting the contradictory nature of English!

    Some food for thought: A student recently asked me why alarm clocks (alarms in general), timers and bombs all ‘go off’ instead of ‘on’…

    • Why those devices all “go off”? Very simply, dear, because they make us disappear from where we were originally. You get out of your bed, hurry away from home, run to an appointment, or make you go to your next life!!!

  2. Too many cooks spoil the broth. /Many hands make light work.

    • Jamie, I note that I posted my comment (with the “Too many cooks…” proverb) just one minute ahead of you. Which prompts another proverb: “Great minds think alike”. Is there an “opposite” to that?

      • Fools seldom differ.

  3. Another one:

    Too many cooks spoil the broth
    The more the merrier

    And two lyrics:

    “The best things in life are free but you can give them to the birds and bees. I want money.” John Lennon

    “I don’t care much for money, money can’t buy me love” John Lennon

  4. Love these. My husband can be counted upon to come up with a contradictory proverb whenever one is uttered in his hearing.

  5. A variation of this idea is to use minims (meaningless proverbs – the opposite of maxims):

    A deep well’s waters / flow not
    A fat egg / won’t hatch
    An early dawn / will morning scorn
    An owl in a sack / troubles no man
    Ill lit lamps / lose light
    The tree / is taller than the highest wave

    Students match the parts of the proverbs together (and as they are meaningless it doesn’t really matter how they do this).

    They then provide an explanation for some of the proverbs they have created.

    Finally it can be extended by getting them to write their own minims.

    • Thanks Pete … I had never heard of minims though, or any of these! Interesting. Looks like a pretty high level activity though, but potentially very creative!

  6. Dear Lindsey,

    here is another pair:

    What ‘s good for the goose is good for the gander

    One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

    Belgrade, Serbia

  7. I would definitely use this is my English class, Pete! This would improve students reasoning and argumentation skills. Great for teaching conversation.

  8. “Things done in haste at leisure be repented”

    Could we apply that to our choice of EFL as a career or jos?

    And I can’t think of an opposite – perhaps there is none in this particular case?

    • Of course: He who hesitates is lost.

  9. Should be ‘job’, of curse!

  10. Great activity! A possible extension: Ask your students to, in pairs or in small groups, choose two or three of those proverbs and make up their own proverbs while keeping the main structure. For instance, “the pen is… than…”, “better… than…”, “you are never too… to…”, etc. Then the new proverbs are displayed on the walls. Students circulate in the room, have a look at the new proverbs and vote on their favorite new proverbs (they cannot vote for their own). The 6 top most voted proverbs make it to Lindsay’s Six Things blog.

    • Great idea! I love it. Thanks EnglishUniverse!

      • You’re welcome, Lindsay. EnglishUniverse, aka Daniel Martín.

  11. if you dont agree with the saying

    ‘dicretion is the better part of valour’

    what can you use as an argument??

  12. Faint heart never won fair lady.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: