Don’t worry if you’ve heard the idiomatic phrase actions speak louder than words and been a little confused by it. After all, actions don’t have mouths and can’t speak out loud! Like other idioms, this expression has a figurative, and not literal, meaning. Let’s explore its definition so you can use this popular proverbial saying correctly yourself when speaking and writing.
What Does Actions Speak Louder Than Words Mean?
The phrase actions speak louder than words means that what you do (your actions) is more significant and carries more weight than what you say (your words). Put simply, the expression conveys that it’s better to actually do something than to just say you’ll do it.
Think about it: How would you feel if your partner or spouse told you every day for a week that they’d mow the lawn, but they never did? Frustrated and upset, right? What about if they didn’t say anything about mowing but you came home from work one day and your yard was freshly cut? Relieved and happy, yes?
People often say they’ll do something yet they don’t follow through. (You may have heard the phrase empty promises before, which reflects words that are spoken but never followed through on). Or, they’ll express themselves through their words in one way but then act completely differently. The proverb actions speak louder than words encourages us to look to a person’s actions to see their true character, and not just to listen to the words they speak. It can be easy to say something, but it requires effort and dedication to take action. This is not to say that words are meaningless. Rather, that we can’t look to one’s words alone when trying to understand their nature and their impact on us and our lives.
Here are several example sentences using the idiomatic expression actions speak louder than words:
- My parents always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But now that I’m a dad, I realize that I must set a good example, and that my children will follow my lead since actions speak louder than words.
- The politician needs to remember that actions speak louder than words: He says he wants to work together with the opposing party, but his voting record shows he has never supported any of their bills.
- My boyfriend tells me he loves me all the time, but he forgot my birthday and our anniversary this month. I think I’m going to break up with him, because to me actions speak louder than words.
- I kept telling my boss I’d get to the presentation but didn’t end up meeting the deadline. He called me into his office for a warning and told me that actions speak louder than words.
Origins of the Phrase
As is the case with most popular expressions used today, variations of actions speak louder than words have been used for quite some time—and in many different languages.
The proverb is said to have appeared in some form in ancient Greek, as well as in the 1477 translation of Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, potentially the first, or at least one of the earliest books, printed in English. The phrasing there is reported to translate as: “A man ought not to be deemed by his words, but by his works.”
Shortly after, in the 1500s, French writer Michel de Montaigne is quoted as stating, “Saying is one thing and doing is another.” (His phrasing is sometimes recorded as the shortened expression saying is one thing, doing another.) Later, in 1628, J. Pym used this version of the phrase in a speech: “A word spoken in season is like an Apple of Gold set in Pictures of Silver, and actions are more precious than words.”
It seems the version of the expression we know and use today dates back to 1736 and a letter titled “Melancholy State of Province,” published in Colonial Currency. There, A.M. Davis writes, “Actions speak louder than words, and are more to be regarded.”
In 1856, President Abraham Lincoln famously used the phrase and ushered it into popularity, writing, “‘Actions speak louder than words’ is the maxim; and, if true, the South now distinctly says to the North, ‘Give us the measures, and you take the men.’”
Understanding Idioms and Proverbs
An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. As you’ve already discovered, these words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning: They don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Of course, neither actions or words can speak. Therefore, actions can’t literally speak louder than words. As you now know, this idiomatic expression is used figuratively, to mean that what a person does is more important than what they say they’ll do; that a person’s actions have a stronger impact than their words.
A proverb is a short, common phrase or expression that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage and aphorism, as well as maxim, which is used in the Abraham Lincoln quote above. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Blood is thicker than water.
The idiom talk is cheap is a synonym for actions speak louder than words and can be used in its place. It means that it’s easy to talk about what you’re going to do but much harder to put those words into action; in other words, that actions mean more or are worth more than words.
Other similar expressions include the idioms talk the talk and walk the walk, which are often used together. Talk the talk means that someone speaks confidently or in a boastful manner about a topic or expresses an action they intend to take, even if they don’t necessarily do anything when it comes to that topic or action. Walk the walk means that someone does what they say they will; they follow through on their promises. It also means that they have the ability to do what they say they will do. When you hear the two idioms used together as in talk the talk and walk the walk, it means that someone can back up their words with equivalent actions; they can deliver on what they say with appropriate action. For example, “Mary always said she’d win the mayor’s race, and after campaigning diligently, she did! She talked the talk and walked the walk.” If someone doubts a person can deliver on their promise, you may often hear them use this saying to express that apprehension as well, as in, “Mike says he’s a really great baseball player, but I doubt he can talk the talk and walk the walk.”
Consult an idioms dictionary for even more similar phrases.
Actions speak louder than words is an idiom and proverb that means what one does is more indicative of their true character and more important than what they say; that people’s physical actions matter more than the words they speak. Think about it this way: It takes hardly any effort to say you’ll run to the store for your mother, but it takes a great deal of effort to make time in your day, get in your car, shop, and unload the groceries for her. The phrase doesn’t mean that words are entirely powerless, just that it’s best to back up your words with action. Similar expressions include talk is cheap and talk the talk and walk the walk.