What Is an Aphorism and How Is It Used?

They say knowledge is power—so let's learn all about aphorisms with these common aphorism examples! (Hint: "Knowledge is power" is one.)

English has a lot of words—and another thing it has a lot of is words describing other words, or combos of them. If a pair of words directly contradict one another, it’s an oxymoron. When a group of words vastly over-exaggerates, we call that hyperbole. We even have words for when someone uses language wrong, as in the case of these malapropism examples! It can be tough to keep all of these wordy words straight. For example, what is an aphorism?  Plus, get a chuckle from some fun uses of words with these limerick examples.

What is an aphorism?

“Aphorism” is a slightly vague term, especially compared to some of its grammar fellows. An aphorism doesn’t have to follow any strict grammatical rule, unlike palindromes or pangrams. Instead, an aphorism is a general, often overused phrase that presents an observation about life. It usually presents the speaker’s worldview or a directive that they give to others about how to live. For instance, do you groan when you hear “The early bird gets the worm” or “Forgive and forget”? Those are aphorisms. If you start a sentence with “You know what they say about…”, chances are you’re invoking an aphorism.

But aphorisms don’t have to be oft-repeated statements you hear all the time or see on motivational posters. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice literally announces that it is starting with an aphorism: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Austen obviously came up with this line herself when writing the book; the words didn’t already exist. But they encapsulate what the narrator of Pride and Prejudice believes to be true about life, so they count as an aphorism. (And, of course, today that’s a pretty famous opening line!)

Aphorism examples

There are all sorts of expressions that can be considered aphorisms. Here are some examples you might recognize:

Everyday aphorisms:

  • The grass is always greener on the other side.
  • Don’t cry over spilled milk.
  • Pride goeth before a fall.
  • Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. —Lord Acton
  • ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all. —Alfred Lloyd Tennyson

Aphorisms in popular culture:

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
  • In A Clockwork Orange: “A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man.”
  • In Forrest Gump: “My mama used to say life was like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.”
  • In The Shining: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
  • In Star Wars: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Yoda

Get the idea? It’s not so much a grammatical term as a descriptor of a certain type of statement. If you didn’t know there was a word for that, now you do!

Another interesting thing to note about aphorisms is that they can toe the line between literal and figurative language. If you say something like “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” you’re speaking literally. But on the other hand, when you say “The grass is always greener,” chances are you’re not actually talking about real grass, so it’s a figurative expression. Often, aphorisms like this are so widespread that people understand what they mean even though they’re metaphorical.

And finally, these statements labeled as an aphorism don’t necessarily mean they’re true, and what may be true for one person may not be true for someone else. But hey, if the shoe fits…! (See what we did there?) Next, learn about another popular term, onomatopoeia, with these fun onomatopoeia examples.


Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.