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This phrase advises a healthy skepticism of the written word.

Is there a similar idiom that advises skepticism of the spoken word?

  • Not an answer, just a curiosity: phrases.org.uk also cites "computers don't reject keystrokes", and here (but not a duplicate, though): english.stackexchange.com/q/225364/179649 – Gerardo Furtado May 25 at 23:38
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    Don’t believe everything you hear. – Jim May 26 at 6:02
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    Take everything you hear from ——— with a grain of salt. – Naomi May 26 at 14:07
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Gregory Titelman, Random House Dictionary of America' Popular Proverbs and Sayings, second edition(2000) identifies a number of related expressions conveying this idea under the general title "Believe only half of what you see and nothing you hear":

Believe only half of what you see and nothing you hear. Question everything, especially rumors. The proverb has been traced back to Proverbs of Alfred (c. 1300). First attested in the United States in 1770. In 1845, it was used by the American poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49). It is found in varying forms: Believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see; Do not (don't) believe anything (everything) you hear nor (and) half of what you read; Never believe anything (everything) you hear; Believe only what they do and nothing of what they say; One must not believe all he hears; You can't believe everything you hear; Don't believe everything you read in the papers, etc. Usually they are followed by another old saying: "But I saw it. I saw it with my own two eyes."

For your purposes, "You can't believe everything you hear" may be the most relevant idiomatic form that offers a direct oral/aural counterpoint to the warning "Paper does not refuse ink" (which is essentially a fancier, more figurative way of saying, "Don't believe everything you read in the papers").

Wolfgang Mieder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992) has some interesting alternative expressions along similar lines:

They say is a tough old liar. [also recorded as "The biggest liar in the world is they say.")

and  

Saying so don't make it so.

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  • Non-native English speaker here: shouldn't it be "Saying so doesn't make it so."? – Gerardo Furtado May 26 at 4:26
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    @Gerardo Furtado: Under dominant rules of English, the verb should be 'doesn't,' not 'don't.' But in colloquial English speech, it is not uncommon to for people to use what appear to be mismatched subjects and verbs but are in fact an alternative set of subject/verb agreement rules. Especially in folk sayings, you'll see expressions like "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and "Dance with the one that brung you." In each case, the expression is at odds with one or more received rules of formal English... – Sven Yargs May 26 at 5:08
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    ...but it is nonetheless widely viewed as the right (folksy) way to use the expression. Editors sometimes try to make an uncouth expression acceptable to polite society by recasting it as artificial proper English: "You should dance with the person who escorted you to the party." In many cases this doesn't work at all. In the case of "Saying so doesn't make it so," the revision is less awkward, but if you're trying to express the idea properly, why stop there? Why not fill it out to read as "Saying that something is so doesn't make it so"? And thereby the sharp edge of the original is lost. – Sven Yargs May 26 at 5:10
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    Thanks for the explanation! It reminds me of Beatle's Ticket to ride: "She's got a ticket to ride, but she don't care". Quite strange to my foreign ears. – Gerardo Furtado May 26 at 5:16
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    @GerardoFurtado "Doesn't" also destroys the cadence, which is part of what makes it so pithy. English naturally has a strong-weak syllable cadence - "SAYing SO don't MAKE it SO" puts the emphasis on "say", "so", and "make" - the key points. It's a subtle poetic point - but memorable expressions tend to be poetic, or they will be replaced with equivalent ones that are. – Iiridayn May 28 at 3:13
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You may also like talk is cheap:

[Merriam-Webster]
: used to mean that it is easy to say that one will do something

(where used here means is used to as opposed to implying an archaic meaning)

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    Right, this is the used that's pronounced /juz/ rather than the one pronounced /jus/. – tchrist May 26 at 14:24
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There's an idiom that goes not worth the paper it's written on:

[Merriam-Webster]
: not of real value : not legally valid

(A variation is not worth the paper it's printed on.)

This has a similar connotation to the paper does not refuse ink saying from the question—which leads into my actual answer.


Lee Gesmer, a lawyer, wrote a blog post that added a clever twist to this sentiment in "An Oral Agreement is Only as Good as the Paper It's Written On." Meaning, in short, if it's not put into writing, then it's just words that that don't have any value.

For the purpose of this question, it could be modified slightly:

The spoken word is only as good as the paper it's written on.

The elegance of this is that not only does is it based on an existing idiom in relation to the written word, but it turns it around to refer to the skeptical nature of speech.


The two idioms actually go well together:

Paper does not refuse ink, and the spoken word is only as good as the paper it's written on.

In short, be skeptical of anything, written or spoken.

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    Doesn't make "not worth the paper" make a claim about a specific [contract, law, statement], that could just as well not have been written, but does not include the general claim that anything written is more or less worthless? – I'm with Monica May 26 at 9:49
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    This also implies that whatever misinformation a person spreads verbally would suddenly become credible if they wrote it down. Which is likely not what OP is looking for. – Philipp May 26 at 12:57
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    @Philipp The point of the saying is that it isn't written down. But even if it were, that's why, combined with the other saying, it still doesn't matter. – Jason Bassford May 26 at 13:02
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Actions speak louder than words, which suggests that speech is less credible than actions, is widely used.

Another expression, with usage that extends beyond English, is A closed mouth catches no flies. It exists in many variants and in many languages, and sources attribute it to multiple people, but there seems to be no consensus about where it comes from.

One of this expression's variants, If you keep your mouth shut, the flies can't get in, is, I believe, a better answer to the question, because it implies that flies will just come in on their own. This suggests that someone talking too much would be caught unawares and would appear foolish (and probably be very uncomfortable) because of the fly influx. On the other hand, A closed mouth catches no flies suggests that someone might actually be trying to catch flies by speaking.

A Google search of A closed mouth catches no flies shows a long list of sites that attribute a range of origins to the expression and its variants:

Additionally, Prosper Mérimée ends the second edition of his novella Carmen, which inspired Bizet's opéra-comique, with the expression En close bouche, n'entre point mouche (which corresponds roughly to the English If you keep your mouth shut, the flies can't get in).

The list goes on. Suffice it to say that this is a widely used idiom.

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  • "If your open your mind too much, your brain will fall out." Tim Minchin recently reminded me of "En close bouche, n'entre point mouche." – livresque May 28 at 1:43
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"Get it in writing!" or "I'd get that in writing" are used to indicate that something you are told orally --especially an agreement or contract-- is not as trustworthy as the equivalent in writing.

-- He says he'll give me my money back if the car breaks down in the first year.

-- I'd get that in writing.

In contrast, "Talk is cheap", suggested by user7661803, shows a preference for actions over words and might even be applied to written words. It depends on what you are trying to promote over speech. (There's also "Silence is golden", but that doesn't really convey skepticism as much as dislike.)

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“ The words of a gossip are like choice food...” (Proverbs 26:22 HCSB)

Moral lesson: “Think before you swallow a spoken word into your heart.”

Comparing with the original post:

“Paper doesn’t refuse ink.”

This proverb points out a relationship between the elements of the medium that have no bearing on the worth of the written words. Like most proverbs, a discerning mind must take the obvious truth of the statement and project the moral lesson:

“I must evaluate the truth claims of every written statement with a healthy sense of skepticism.”

This proverb in the Old Testament, uses a similar device regarding the spoken word:

“The words of a gossip are like choice food...” (Proverbs 26:22 HCSB)

As the paper readily absorbs the ink of written words, people gladly taste the message of spoken words, but the discerning mind must evaluate the truth claims of every spoken statement with a healthy sense of skepticism.

The Old Testament proverb goes on to point out superior power of spoken words:

“that goes down to one’s inmost being.”

It might be helpful to research the psychology of this observation, but it seems like the passive stimulation of written words allows the critical functions of the brain to operate more readily than the active arousal of spoken words. Regardless, think before you swallow!

Holman Christian Standard Bible, 2009.

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A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

While it connotes certainty is superior to speculation, the latter part implies some sort of bragging. People will often boast of what could happen given a set of circumstances, and this idiom indicates skepticism of it.

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Eavesdroppers seldom hear good of themselves.

This has several variants, and it’s easier for the reader to google the expression than to follow links.

The idea, however, is that when people think that they are not being heard, they speak what they feel, which may or may not be true. The air can no more refuse their voices than paper can refuse ink.

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