15 Pairs of Contradictory Proverbs


Proverbs are beautiful and complex things. They appear, on the surface, to be time-tested nuggets of wisdom which have been passed down through the ages. When a proverb is offered as an explanation, heads nod and it is accepted without further discussion. But what doesn’t cross anyone’s mind is that if the exact opposite event had occurred, an opposite proverb would be offered up, heads would nod, and it would be accepted without further discussion.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when someone pointed out to me that most proverbs have an opposite, but it had a profound impact on me. It seems so obvious to me now that I can hardly fathom how I didn’t see it before. Next time you find yourself nodding along to a proverb, stop and think of its opposite.

Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Don’t beat your head against a stone wall.

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

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it.

Two heads are better than one.
Paddle your own canoe.

Haste makes waste.
Time waits for no man.

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

A word to the wise is sufficient.
Talk is cheap.

It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Nice guys finish last.

Hitch your wagon to a star.
Don’t bite off more that you can chew.

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

Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Clothes make the man.

The squeaking wheel gets the grease.
Silence is golden.

James Barnett, The People’s Almanac #2, p. 1121

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  • Aaron Hardy December 29, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    That’s spectacular. When peer pressure builds through corporate cheerleading, social outlets, etc., this is a great resource. These are far too often thrown around, as you say, as time-tested nuggets of wisdom that nobody can refute.

  • Derek June 19, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Found another great comparison: Does the “early bird catch the worm” or can you “identify the pioneers — they have arrows in their back”? Is the advantage to the “first mover” or should you be a “fast follower”?

  • Mohan Arun L. July 17, 2012 at 3:02 am

    I have more ‘conflicting proverbs’ in one of my blog posts here:


  • On Becoming A Leader – Derek Christensen February 12, 2015 at 12:37 am

    […] This reminds me a bit of a previous post. […]

  • mark July 2, 2015 at 11:38 am

    The opposite of ‘He who hesitates is lost’ would also be: The second mouse gets the cheese.

  • dancingcrane July 21, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    The concept of “Contradictory” proverbs as presented, doesn’t tak into account the idea of antinomy – the “both/and” ness of apparent contradiction. Take “he who hesitates is lost” and “look before you leap”. One cautions against cowardice, analysis paralysis, etc. that leads to extended inaction. The other commends, not hesitation, but the immediate application of the process of looking and evaluating, in order to then leap into action. Do you see how these are complimentary?

    • derek July 22, 2015 at 12:16 am

      Your comment got me thinking. A purely literal interpretation of the proverbs would be contradictory. However, proverbs should never be interpreted purely literally. They warn against the extreme cases, point out trends, caution against certain actions, etc. I suppose the two proverbs in your example would be complementary if they were only applied to extreme cases of each behavior.

      I wasn’t familiar with the term antinomy – it made for interesting reading. Thank you!

    • Ahmet December 28, 2015 at 8:39 am

      All very nice and good but it is not complimentary, it is complementary. I like the way you console the two views and understand the paradoxical nature of various situations that make up life, instead of thinking in static Aristotelian logic.

  • Chaz Wyman April 13, 2016 at 5:12 am

    These sort of sayings have more to do with selective bias than anything else. And tend to find a voice when and if they become apposite.

  • Elizabeth December 4, 2016 at 3:58 am

    Interesting. I will think twice before using a proverb…