Aphorisms - Wisdom Expressed in Short Phrases

Updated on May 28, 2018

Catchy Phrases

Aphorisms are short phrases that express a truth or a wise idea. They use only a few words, usually in a clever or effective way. Being short, they’re easy to remember. They often contain a useful bit of wisdom right on the surface with even more if you think about them in more depth.

Aphorisms are also known as maxims, adages, and proverbs, although there may be some subtle differences between them. Here are some examples along with interpretations of their meanings.


“Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks”

Large goals can be reached by breaking them into smaller, more manageable tasks and working on them persistently.

Oak trees are very strong. No one could be expected to cut one down with a single swing of an axe. But dozens or perhaps hundreds of swings will bring it down.

“Don’t Wait Until It Rains To Build Your Ark”

If you wait until a time of need to begin preparing, it’s already too late. People should always be preparing for the future. Being prepared is an evolutionary process; you may never be 100% prepared for all possible outcomes, but you should continuously show improvement in your preparedness. The ark referred to in this saying is Noah’s ark of the biblical story of the Great Flood.

“Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it”

Preparation is key in life. It’s better to prepare for something and then not need that preparation rather than fail to prepare and find that preparation was important.

“There’s no right way to do the wrong thing”

If you know that an action is wrong, there’s no justification that can make it right. Taking that action, no matter how well you do it, is still wrong.

For example, you can do an excellent job of planning and executing an armed robbery, but it’s still wrong.

“You can’t steer a parked car”

No matter how good your intentions and planning are, you’ll never reach your goals without taking action. All success is based on this first critical action - get started! If the car isn’t moving, steering it won’t help.


“A Stitch In Time Saves Nine”

Take care of the small problems now and they won’t become big problems later. A little effort now can save a lot of time and trouble in the long run. It’s very interesting to note that the letters in “a stitch in time saves nine” can be rearranged to spell “this is meant as incentive”.

“A change is as good as a rest”

A change in routine or location can be restorative. This is one reason why weekends and vacations are so important. Being stuck in a rut can be depressing.

“A poor craftsman blames his tools”

People will place the blame for their shortcomings on anything other than themselves. The quality of your tools can make a difference, but the real difference is with the person wielding those tools. If you’re not getting results you like, look to see if the problem lies with the tools or with the craftsman.

“This Too Shall Pass”

All things - pride, fear, grief, joy - are temporary. This can be consoling in times of despair or it can bring you back to earth when your ego starts to swell.

“A Chain Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link”

Each link in a chain bears the full weight of the load. If one of those links is weaker than the others, it is the most likely point of failure. The same can be said of the weakest member of a team or the weakest attribute of an individual.

There will always be a weakest link; the trick is to make sure that it’s strong enough for the task.


“When Your Only Tool Is A Hammer, Every Problem Looks Like A Nail”

People tend to fall back on what they’re most comfortable with, even if it’s not the most appropriate tool for the job. This limits how you see the world and the way you try to find solutions.

For example, in a dispute over a parking spot, a lawyer might argue about the right of way while a boxer might turn to fisticuffs.

“If You Do What You’ve Always Done, You’ll Get What You’ve Always Got”

If you want to make a change in your life, you need to take action. The change won’t happen on it’s own. You won’t lose weight if you continue to eat the way you always have. You won’t get in better shape if you continue to avoid the gym. You won’t get out of debt if you continue to spend more than you earn.

This same thought is expressed in this definition of insanity: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

“A Place For Everything, And Everything In Its Place”

An organized space is a sign of an organized person. The ability to organize yourself and your belongings is a key attribute of success. If you have a place for everything and you keep everything in its place, you never have to waste time and energy looking for things.

“If You Lie Down With Dogs, You Wake Up With Fleas”

Human failings such as laziness and dishonesty tend to be contagious. Right or wrong, you’re known by the company you keep. If you frequent shady places and shady people, you’ll soon be seen as shady yourself.

“An Ounce Of Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure”

It’s better to prevent a bad thing from happening than to try fix the problem once it has already happened. For example, visiting your dentist regularly can prevent the need for major dental work in the future.

“Genius Is 1 Percent Inspiration And 99 Percent Perspiration”

Some type of creative insight is helpful, but most success is accomplished through persistent effort over time. Thomas Edison, to whom this quote is most often attributed, tested no fewer than 6,000 materials before settling on carbonized bamboo as the filament for his light bulb. That persistence enabled him to patent the first commercially viable light bulb.


“A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush”

Having something for certain is better than a small possibility of getting something better. Why risk what you already have for something better when you could very well lose both? While this makes sense in some circumstances, it’s directly contradicted by the next example.

“Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”

You can’t make progress without taking risks. If you believe in an idea, you have to take a chance and pursue it. If you don’t, you’ll never know what might have been.

Conflicting Phrases

These short sayings can express nuggets of wisdom, but there are often aphorisms that directly contradict each other. Consider these:

  • "Out of sight, out of mind" vs. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder".
  • "The pen is mightier than the sword" vs "Actions speak louder than words".
  • "What you see is what you get" vs. "Don't judge a book by its cover".
  • "Many hands make light work" vs. "Too many cooks spoil the broth".
  • "Birds of a feather flock together" vs. "Opposites attract".

The phrases in each of these pairings are in direct opposition to each other, yet they're all true. Part of the wisdom is knowing which phrase is the right one for the circumstances.


Aphorisms, adages, maxims, and proverbs are interesting bits of language that can get a deeper meaning across in a few short words, but if they’re used too often, they risk becoming cliches. They then lose much of their effectiveness.

Related Information

Examples Of Why The English Language Is So Confusing

The English language is a mixed bag of words, odd spelling rules, words that look alike, but sound different, sound alike but look different, and sound and look alike, but have different meanings!

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Ron Bergeron


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      • ronbergeron profile imageAUTHOR

        Ron Bergeron 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts, US

        Those are both good ones. I may add those and others as they come up.

        Thanks for your feedback.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        While the memory of oak is still fresh in your memory, think of,

        'Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow'.

        England especially and Britain in general was denuded of oak, ash and beech to keep ahead of the French and Spanish fleets, we even stripped Ireland of oaks. How about another marine aphorism - 'For want of a nail the ship went down', i.e, don't stint on materials.

        Any more coming, Ron?

      • ronbergeron profile imageAUTHOR

        Ron Bergeron 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts, US

        Thank you for your feedback.

      • LupitaRonquillo profile image


        6 years ago

        "When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" is a good one... and I firmly believe in being organized and in the aphorism A place for everything, and everything in its place!


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