Many Ways to Use an Adage

Adages Can Add Interest

By Annette Rey

What is an adage and how can writers use one to their advantage?

First, let’s start with a definition of adage. It is a proverb or short statement expressing a general truth.

Synonyms are:

Aphorism – a pithy observation that contains a general truth

Axiom – a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true

Byword – a word or expression summarizing a thing’s characteristics or a person’s principles

Cliché – a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought; a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person; a stereotype

Dictum – a formal pronouncement from an authoritative source

Maxim – a short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule of conduct

Motto – a short sentence or phrase chosen as encapsulating the beliefs or ideals guiding an individual, family, or institution

Platitude – a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful

Precept – a general rule intended to regulate behavior or thought; a writ or warrant

Proverb – a short, pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice

Truism – a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting

Some of the above definitions look alike, but they differ subtly.

The average writing instructor/advisor will probably tell you to avoid using any of these in your writing. On the other hand, I think they should be occasionally used, but with restrictions.

Sprinkle one in a character’s dialogue. He could be a boring sort of guy and you want to accent that part of him. He’s being questioned by police, he answers, “Well, truth is the best policy so I will cooperate.” A demanding older man, stuck in a past era, may say, “A stitch in time saves nine, Dearie. Be careful there!” Someone who has trouble being original may copy quotes of other famous people.

Use one of the above examples as the heading of a chapter, or of each chapter of your book as a prelude – research and use those that apply to your story, a character, an event in that chapter. Something as simple as “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” can become ominous, in retrospect, if the chapter is about a maniacal, killing doctor at a health farm.

Platitudes are often given by matrons trying to guide young women to avoid troubles with men. “If you give away the milk, he has no need to buy the cow.” Translation: Free sex equals no need for marriage.

Do you see what I mean by these ideas? I am thinking outside the box. I encourage writers to exercise their brains and do the same thing.

It is not you using the adages, it is your character. Or it’s a headline appropriate to your chapter. Or it’s an entry into a diary, or it is a newspaper headline.

You can find ways to creatively incorporate old phrases, product mottos, well-known commercial jingles. Snap, crackle, pop – not capitalized – can be used as a mumbling zombie’s bone-crushing warning. This adds a tinge of humor as a distraction to the drama, if you deem that appropriate.

You may object totally to this post. I am just suggesting you keep an open mind and you may find a slot where, wow, you never saw that opening before. You may discover a perfect fit to accentuate an aspect of your story or character or narrator.

Got ideas?





2 thoughts on “Many Ways to Use an Adage

  1. Thank you for an interesting post. I didn’t even know what an adage was, until you explained it. I do know, I’m guilty of using, and often overusing some of the things you listed. Thanks for a gentle reminder of things to watch when we write.


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