40 Top Business English Idioms (and those you should avoid)
Business English Idioms, like all idioms, can be tricky to understand and use correctly. Before looking at Business English Idioms, let’s first discuss what idioms are. We outline this in even more detail in our business writing course for Non-Native English writers.
What are Idioms?
Idioms are phrases that mean something other than their literal meaning or translation. The classic example of an idiom is “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
The image above shows what you would think it means, but it actually means that it is raining really hard.
Another common idiom (which is also a phrasal verb) is “blow up.” Literally translated, this means to tilt your head back and blow air straight up. But, this actually means “to explode.” This Business idiom can be used in lots of ways, both positive and negative. Here are some examples:
- The phones are blowing up right now! (This means that the phones seem to be exploding with calls or that a lot of calls are coming in at the same time.)
- The markets blew up yesterday. (This means that the markets were very busy. It’s unclear if the activity was positive or negative.)
- When John showed up late to the meeting, he blew up our chances of getting that contract. (This means that John exploded or destroyed the team's chance of securing the contract because he was late to the meeting.)
In the first two examples, using the idiom makes the sentences a bit unclear. Was it good or bad that they got a lot of phone calls? Did the markets increase or decrease with the explosion of activity? Only the last one is clear, and yet it’s better to say he destroyed their chance of getting the contract.
The problem with idioms
As the previous examples show, idioms can be interesting and add color to your language (both in speech and writing), but they are often vague, unclear, and difficult for many people to understand. Even if English is your native language, idioms can be challenging because they can also be regional!
While it’s best to avoid common business idioms and instead use a clearer, stronger verb, there are some you should know.
List of top 40 Business English idioms
- Ahead of the pack - to be more successful than others doing the same thing as you
- Back to square one - start at the beginning again
- Ballpark figure or ballpark number - an estimate
- Behind the scenes - background work
- Bend over backwards - do everything possible to appease someone
- By the book - to do something exactly according to rules
- Call it a day - to end activity knowing that you’ve made enough progress
- Cut corners - to do something in the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way possible, but that involves not completing the task truly well
- Corner the market - to control enough of the supply to determine price
- Game plan - advance strategy
- Get down to business - get to work
- Get something off the ground - get started
- Get your ducks in a row - get organized
- Go the extra mile - to do more than is expected
- Hands are tied - to not have any choices
- In a nutshell - in summary
- In the driver's seat - in control
- In the same boat - to be in the same situation
- Long shot - unlikely
- Lots of moving parts - many different things to consider
- Learn the ropes - to learn how a particular job is done (or how a work place functions)
- On the same page - to have the same understanding
- Put all your eggs in one basket - to commit all of your resources to one idea or project
- Put the cart before the horse - to do things in the wrong order
- Put out fires - To deal with emergencies
- Raise the bar - to increase the baseline standard
- Reach out - to make contact
- Red tape - bureaucratic steps to work through
- See eye to eye - to be in aggrement
- Shoot something down - to decline something in an abrupt way
- Smooth sailing - the progress won’t have any obstacles
- Take the bull by the horns - to take control of a situation
- The elephant in the room - the awkward or uncomfortable thing that no one wants to address but everyone knows is there
- Think outside the box - to think creatively
- Touch base - to briefly contact someone for an update
- To table it - to delay a decision on something until a later date
- Up in the air - undecided
- Upper hand - to have an advantage
- Win-win situation - all parties benefit in this situation
- Word of mouth - passing information verbally, often referred to as a grassroots marketing strategy
Using (and avoiding) idioms
It’s important to know these Business English idioms because you WILL hear them. But, should you use them? That depends on your audience.
If you are working with colleagues in North America, it’s fine to use these as long as you are absolutely sure you are using them correctly. If your audience is outside of North America or from various locations, it’s better to be clearer and more specific in your writing. You always want to make sure that your message is clear, direct, and concise so that it is also effective!
I work with many international graduate and undergraduate students, and I avoid these idioms in the majority of my email communication with them. In speech, I will use them because there is more of an opportunity to clarify in speech. But in writing, particularly in email, I want to be as clear and concise as possible to avoid multiple emails for clarification.
My recommendation is to avoid using idioms whenever possible. There is almost always a clearer way to deliver your message.
Take a business writing course
Learn how to write using clear, concise language and improve your overall business communication skills by taking an online business writing course. Helpful for native English speakers and non-native speakers alike, a writing course gives you a better grasp on the business English language and English vocabulary.
At Instructional Solutions, you'll learn a formal writing process, practice writing in a business environment, receive individualized feedback on assignments, and more. Learn more about our Non-Native Business Writing Course here.
Become a stronger business writer, and advance your career.
Enroll in our online, self-paced course and get detailed feedback on your actual writing.Download the Outline