I’m looking for an equivalent idiom that refers to actions that aren’t supposed to be referred to visually.

Example: Person A owes person B money and day after day says he will pay person B back. Eventually, person B just says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

That sounds awkward to me and I’m looking for a more appropriate idiom for examples such as the one above.

  • 25
    "I'll believe it when I see it."
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 3 '18 at 2:46
  • 6
    We don't just 'see' things that are visible. 'Will I ever see another day ?' 'Do you not see what I mean ?' So payment, as such, can be 'seen'. But then, so can the money.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 3 '18 at 3:00
  • 1
    Okay, "Let's see"
    – Kris
    Oct 3 '18 at 10:17
  • 2
    @nigel222 "I'll believe it when I spend it" sounds way more awkward to me. The idiom is not interpreted literally, it's recognized. Changing the end of the idiom after it has been recognized is jarring. I would only expect it to be done as an attempt at amusing word play. Oct 3 '18 at 14:59
  • 1
    As a native US English speaker, I don't even bat an eye at the idea of using "I'll believe it when I see it" with respect to something non-visual. If anything, I get an impression of believing it when I see evidence suggesting it. For example, I may not need to see A pay me back, but if I see the change in my bank account later, then I believe it.
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 3 '18 at 20:41

10 Answers 10


I think the idiom I'll believe it when I see it should work in the example you have given. It may refer to the money owned or the whole thing - paying back. Remember that the idiom is used for expressing doubt that something will happen or be. In other words:

I'll pay you back, I promise! - I highly doubt it will happen = I'll believe it when I see it.

Alternatively, you might say:

I'll pay you back! - Don't feed me empty promises! / Actions speak louder than words! / It's just talk (and no action)!

  • 6
    We'll see about that!
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 3 '18 at 11:59

The idiom "I will believe it when I see it" seems to be very apt to the context as you explained. See the M-W Dictionary gives another idiom together with the one you have put in question and an example sentence to be used in a context like that of yours!

wasn't born yesterday (idiom)

Definition of wasn't born yesterday —used to say that someone is unlikely to believe something that is not true or to trust someone who is not trustworthy

He said he'd pay me back, but I'll believe it when I see it. I wasn't born yesterday.


I’m well aware of figurative expressions

In French the verb "perceive" (percevoir) is used for this -- i.e. one perceives income, e.g. you "perceive" the money for the rent when you receive it.

But though that's literally true I don't think "I'll believe it when I perceive it" would be idiomatic in English (nor even in French).

If you can't bring yourself to use "see" then maybe, "I'll believe it when it happens".

A politer phrase would be "I hope so", or something like that.


Here are some good comebacks to repeated promises with little chance of delivery:

Yeah, okay, you're my hero.

Less talk, more action.

I'm so excited. I can't wait to see you deliver on that promise.

I don't doubt your good intentions. There must be a new pavement project in hell.

I can't pay the phone bill with your promises.


  • 2
    +1 for "There must be a new pavement project in hell." I love this one, although I'd never heard it before and it took me a minute!
    – Pam
    Oct 3 '18 at 9:30
  • @Pam: I made it up. It ain't that difficult.
    – Ricky
    Oct 3 '18 at 18:00

Okay, let's see:

The expression is derived from the idiom "Seeing is believing." So we don't change the wording when used idiomatically, also as in "Let's see" (wait and watch); "I see" (understand); "You see," (listen!; etc.); …

We can see that the word has some seventeen ways to use.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

is saying "I will not believe it until it happens for real" and, so, is fine.


I think 'That'll be the day...' works perfectly well and has no mention of needing to 'see' anything.

something you say in order to show you think that something is unlikely to happen:

"Mike says he's going to give up smoking." "That'll be the day!"


You may say

"He said he'd pay me back, but I won't count my chickens before they hatch"




There's always:

The proof of the pudding is in the eating

Which is a really precise metaphor but it is often mangled into:

The proof is in the pudding

Which is basically just meaningless nonsense.


This is just saying, and can be used figuratively. Even for things, that cannot be seen at all. "if you drink this, you will feel more comfortable - I'll believe when I see it.”

As strange, as it may feel, it works this way. And I heard it used in this same sence even from people, who are totally blind (so it is impossible for them to see anything). The "when I see it" here means "when I could confirm it myself".

You could have this: "If you put this shell near your ear, you will hear the ocean - I'll believe when I see it.” for example.

There are many saying, that use "see" in figurative way and even for those, where it is not so figurative ("When I will see you again? - Tomorrow evening, just here." or "Let see, what happen if ...") - and a lot of blind people use such sayings as normal part of their speech - even when they will (de-facto) never see anything. But as the saing goes, they will witness the result in some way and it is easier to use common phrase with see, that to describe it in perfect scientific description.

Also it works in many other languages (I can confirm czech, slovak and russian, but I will bet, that also many others have such phrases and that even blind people are using it even if - literally taken - it is impossible for them)


The premise of the question is that the usage of "see" is not appropriate here.

But it clearly, certainly is. "See" has a very deep and broad figurative usage.

If "I'll believe it when I see it" isn't appropriate use of "see", then neither is "we'll see what happens."

I'm not downvoting any answers which did what you asked, provided alternative idioms, but I'm downvoting the question because the notion that "I'll believe it when I see it" is somehow "wrong" is... Well, wrong.

  • Contradicting the premise of the question seems like an answer to me.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 4 '18 at 14:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.