What Does Practice Makes Perfect Mean?

You’ve likely been told “practice makes perfect” many times before by your parents or a teacher, coach, or other mentor. It’s an extremely common expression—and a pretty catchy one, too. But do you know what it means? Let’s explore its definition, origin, and the answer to the question that inherently arises from it: Does practice in fact make perfect?!

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What Does Practice Makes Perfect Mean?

This idiomatic and proverbial expression (more below) is used to convey the idea that the way to become skilled at something is to practice it often. In other words, doing something over and over and over again helps you become proficient or very good at it. (In this expression, the definition of practice is “to do or perform often or habitually.”)

Think about it: If you want to be a great pianist, you have to play the piano a lot, right? If you want to become a professional football player, you have to play in lots of games and attend tons of afternoon practices, yes? And if you want to succeed in chemistry, you have to study hard, complete assignments, and take tests, don’t you?

When someone tells you that “practice makes perfect,” they’re encouraging you to keep at a particular endeavor—to continue learning and honing the skills that will help you excel in that effort, even master it, and ultimately reach your goals. 

Here are some example sentences using the phrase practice makes perfect:

  • There were times when I was learning to play guitar that I wanted to give up because it was so difficult. My teacher always said, “Practice makes perfect,” and he was right: I stuck with it, and after years of lessons and practicing at home, I now make a living playing guitar in a band!
  • My high school algebra teacher always makes us do tons and tons of equations; she says that practice makes perfect. 
  • Marcia wanted to win the baking competition in New York more than anything in the world. Knowing that practice makes perfect, she made her signature cake at home 15 times before the big day.
  • I wasn’t very good at calligraphy when I started my wedding invitation business. But practice makes perfect, and now clients from all over the country order from me because of my skill.   

The Phrase’s Origin

According to language historians, the idiom and proverb comes from a Latin phrase with a very similar meaning. In English, it most likely dates to the mid-1500s in its present form, although the variation use makes mastery was likely popular before that time. It’s possible practice makes perfect first appeared in writing in the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, published in part in the 1850s. Like many other proverbs and idioms, its history isn’t entirely clear. 

Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

You might be asking yourself, “If I practice something enough can I truly become perfect at it?” While the word perfect can mean “completely flawless,” or without any fault or defect whatsoever, in terms of this phrase, it simply means “proficient or expert”; in other words, “skilled.” After all, you may have also heard someone say, “There’s no such thing as perfect” or “There’s no such thing as perfection.” Indeed, perfection is difficult to attain, and in some instances impossible. It’s also often objective, meaning open for interpretation.

For example, if you study for your English test enough, you may score a 100, which is indeed a perfect grade. If you practice violin for most of your life, will you finally be a perfect player? It depends on who you ask and what their definition of “perfect” is. Most people will say there’s always room for improvement. 

You may also be asking yourself if practice is the only thing that matters, or if your intelligence, innate talent, and other factors also play important roles in your success with a subject or activity. If you are, you’re not alone: Scientists and researchers have been asking this question for decades, and working to find an answer. (It’s an example of the nature vs. nurture debate, which we discussed when looking at the phrase like father, like son.) What do their studies show?

One well-known study suggests that practice accounts for about 80 percent of the difference between an expert-level performance and an amateur performance; it’s this study that seems to have led to the “10,000 rule,” or the idea that if you practice something for 10,000 hours or more, you become an expert at it. (The idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.) Yet, other newer studies show that while practice is absolutely vital in learning a new skill, it may not play as big of a role as earlier researchers thought.

While scientists may not fully concur on what percentage practice plays in success, they do agree that even if you’re incredibly smart or born with an amazing knack for something, practice is still very important in helping you achieve proficiency and expertise. Though, practice alone doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome. 

What Are Idioms and Proverbs?

Practice makes perfect is considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. 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.

Practice makes perfect is a little different than other idioms, in that if you take it at face value, you’re likely to understand its intended meaning. However, if you take it entirely literally, you may understand it to mean that practice makes you absolutely perfect at something, when in fact, the expression is used more figuratively to mean that practice helps you become good or proficient in a skill.

A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Discover many more idioms and proverbs here.Some language experts also consider practice makes perfect a cliché. What is a cliché? A trite, overused expression; a phrase that has perhaps become too commonplace. For example, the saying end all be all is considered by many to be a cliché.

Summary

The idiomatic and proverbial expression practice makes perfect is used to convey that doing something repeatedly can lead to proficiency in it. It means that to become very good at something, be it a subject in school or a musical instrument or sport, you should practice it regularly, over and over.