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What does "Actions Speak Louder Than Words" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The sentiment behind the saying actions speak louder than words is expressed in many cultures. There are certainly references to sayings like it in antiquity, but it may have been first expressed in English in the 1700s. The first reference in English very similar to it is in the book Will and Doom, written by Gersham Bulkeley in 1692, who speaks of actions as “more significant than words.”

The basic idea of Bulkeley’s, which was not new in expression, is that actions speak louder than words as a greater determinant of behavior and character. People can say anything, but when what they say and do are contrary, it’s easier to judge by what is done instead of by what is said. The phrase “saying one thing and doing another,” is related to this idea.

Another way of looking at this old saying, “actions speak louder than words,” is as a guide for how to live life. Actions should meet verbal obligations or sentiments, and they should not contradict them. If a person constantly talks about the plight of the poor but never thinks of donating to a charity or in any way mitigating that plight, their words have a hollowness or empty quality.

Similarly, when people ascribe to certain belief sets, like various religions, that emphasize humility, but then do not act in a humble way, their actions are more telling than their professions of faith. The car with the bumper sticker “What would Jesus Do?” that cuts a person off and drives recklessly is sending a dual and contradictory message. St. Francis noted this in particular when he suggested that people preach the gospel but “use words if necessary.” His idea is that preaching could be active instead of verbal, and that words were secondary to action, and could be expressed in the common phrase, “practice what you preach.”

There is actually legitimate and ongoing scrutiny about whether actions speak louder than words all of the time and in all places. Words are important, and people do listen to them. They don’t always wait to judge whether words are backed up with action, though this might be the wiser course.

Words certainly have the capacity to harm or elevate, and they may sometimes speak louder than actions. Even in ancient Greece, Plato was strongly against the Sophist teaching of rhetoric because it might be used in immoral ways to convince people to think in unethical ways or draw false conclusions. Some of his contemporaries, like Isocrates, stressed that the power of language had to match the power of morality, and that rhetorical language should only be used in an ethical manner. Isocrates also embodied the actions speak louder than words philosophy, and very much used his rhetorical skill to attempt to bring about unification of Greece by frequently writing to Grecian leaders of city-states to plead for this.

In one form of journalism, called “gotcha journalism,” writers and newscasters attempt to catch people either contradicting themselves with other words, or acting in a manner inconsistent with what they’ve said. Gotcha journalism has certainly become easier with the Internet, since people can search anyone’s words and find out if they’ve matched actions, and it’s becoming increasingly common for the average citizen to perform these kinds of searches, especially on politicians or well-known figures in the media. It’s not always known whether actions or words become the determining factor in the popularity of celebrities or politicians; despite actions to the contrary, sometimes words win, and persons not entitled to popularity retain it because of their skill with language or other forms of appeal. It appears Plato’s concern about rhetoric is occasionally justified.

However there is certainly evidence that actions speak than louder than words in a variety of circumstances. The parent who tells a child not to smoke and then lights a cigarette is unlikely to convince that child of the evils of smoking. This has been proven by statistical information showing the greater likelihood of children becoming smokers if their parents smoke. Clearly, in some instances, actions will influence more than words, and though words remain powerful, how people act may mitigate the effects of language, or prove its power.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon925351 — On Jan 11, 2014

I must say, Seneca wrote in 63 B.C., "The actions speaks louder than the speech of preachers".

By anon344114 — On Aug 06, 2013

"Actions speak louder than words" basically means that the character you play as yourself shows the real truth of who you are and what you're capable of, since playing the role of yourself can show your true colors without you even saying a word.

By anon256941 — On Mar 24, 2012

Having a frown on your face and claiming that you are not angry would not make anyone believe your words.

By anon256480 — On Mar 22, 2012

i want more explanation of action speaks louder than words

By RepentPeace — On Mar 10, 2012

Speak no more vain words. Likes are lies. What's a real sacrifice? Let the ego die! Don't lie about crime. Think before you speak, right? As a man thinketh so is he. Priority. Math (logic) has no personal thinking! Vanity/idolatry is the worst policy. Volume (quantity) has no moral quality or clarity! We say and do what we don't mean, and mean what we don't say. Sorry. It's OK. Hey, wait! Nirvana. Messengers weren't actors. Actions speak not until words. Allah speaks truer than nerds. Quran 2:225: Allah will call you to account for the intention in your hearts.

The best regards. The lowest actions are personal and physical! Be humble. For the love of psyche (idolatry) is the root of all evil. Allah is the only truth, most gracious, most merciful, beautiful. All you have to do is repent. Atone again. Tell the truth.

P.S. Know your enemy, Christians. You have been double crossed for ages. Truth makes us humble. Treat the Quran (others) as well as your bible. No tricks or merry gimmicks! Objectivity is freedom from ego and prejudice. Deeds are worthless without true worship of G-d. Realize this from the Quran: Maryam 19:33 - 19:38. Honest peace.

By RepentPeace — On Mar 10, 2012

Are your words even true to begin with? First things first. Logic. True words are prior to true actions. False words are worse than false actions. Just take a good look at materialism. Common sense is better than common interests. Ego's a witch. Rebels of truth. They lied for your sins. Honest peace.

By anon253705 — On Mar 10, 2012

Vanity is the worst policy. Sorry. We say and do what we don't mean. Volume = quantity. Clarity = quality. Math deals with all logic; not just math's! That old vague saying is as false as christians. It's vain. Allah speaks truer than nerds. Truth is better. Actions speak not until words. Messengers weren't actors. Allah (G-d) is the best judge. Intention determines us. Sinners (idolaters) love ego. Love of psyche is the root of all evil. Allah is most gracious, most merciful. Humility for the truth is the root of all good. Vain actions are as worthless as vain words.

Truth is not a harmonious or correct opinion. Objective means being freed from ego/prejudice. Quran 2:225. Allah (the truth) will call you to account for the intention in your heart. You can't see it but believe it. And thus, repent. Kind regards. Peace.

P.S. Please realize a big point, Christians. Appreciate the chapter Maryam. In Quran 19:33 - 19:37. Honest peace.

By anon208933 — On Aug 24, 2011

it means anyone can say something, but to mean it, you have to do it.

By doglover139 — On Jun 29, 2011

It means if you punch a guy in the stomach it hurts more than saying "you're an idiot."

By widget2010 — On Jan 28, 2011

@sapphire12 or in other words, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

If you aren't an example what you want the world to be like, then there is no way to show people the change that needs to happen.

By sapphire12 — On Jan 25, 2011

The concept that your actions speak louder than your words is one of the reasons that another saying, "Do as I say, not as I do", holds no water with children, students, or employees. People in general want to have a leader or other authority figure to whom they can look up, and who fulfills either the goals they have for themselves or at least the goals that the authority figure is trying to set for them. If you want to convince people to listen to you, you need to do what you say.

By mitchell14 — On Jan 24, 2011

There is this great song called Actions Speak Louder Than Words in Tick Tick Boom, a musical by the writer of Rent. In it, the characters talk about the way that people often ignore what is really going on around them because either they do not feel they have the strength to take the actions required, or because there just doesn't seem to be a way to do what needs to be done to show how they feel. It's a really interesting musical overall about three people who are right around the age of 30 in 1990, and not sure where they fit into the world now that they are no longer kids.

By anon67591 — On Feb 25, 2010

1 John 3:18 says, "let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth."

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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