40 Top Business English Idioms (and those you should avoid)

Elisabeth O'Quinn
Post by Elisabeth O'Quinn
Originally published March 28, 2023, updated August 24, 2023
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

  1. Ahead of the pack - to be more successful than others doing the same thing as you
  2. Back to square one - start at the beginning again
  3. Ballpark figure or ballpark number - an estimate
  4. Behind the scenes - background work
  5. Bend over backwards - do everything possible to appease someone
  6. By the book - to do something exactly according to rules
  7. Call it a day - to end activity knowing that you’ve made enough progress
  8. Cut corners - to do something in the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way possible, but that involves not completing the task truly well
  9. Corner the market - to control enough of the supply to determine price
  10. Game plan - advance strategy
  11. Get down to business - get to work
  12. Get something off the ground - get started
  13. Get your ducks in a row - get organized
  14. Go the extra mile - to do more than is expected
  15. Hands are tied - to not have any choices
  16. In a nutshell - in summary
  17. In the driver's seat - in control
  18. In the same boat - to be in the same situation
  19. Long shot - unlikely
  20. Lots of moving parts - many different things to consider
  21. Learn the ropes - to learn how a particular job is done (or how a work place functions)
  22. On the same page - to have the same understanding
  23. Put all your eggs in one basket - to commit all of your resources to one idea or project
  24. Put the cart before the horse - to do things in the wrong order 
  25. Put out fires - To deal with emergencies
  26. Raise the bar - to increase the baseline standard
  27. Reach out - to make contact
  28. Red tape - bureaucratic steps to work through
  29. See eye to eye - to be in agreement
  30. Shoot something down - to decline something in an abrupt way
  31. Smooth sailing - the progress won’t have any obstacles
  32. Take the bull by the horns - to take control of a situation
  33. The elephant in the room - the awkward or uncomfortable thing that no one wants to address but everyone knows is there
  34. Think outside the box - to think creatively
  35. Touch base - to briefly contact someone for an update
  36. To table it - to delay a decision on something until a later date
  37. Up in the air - undecided
  38. Upper hand - to have an advantage
  39. Win-win situation - all parties benefit in this situation
  40. 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

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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.


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Elisabeth O'Quinn
Post by Elisabeth O'Quinn
Originally published March 28, 2023, updated August 24, 2023
Elisabeth has a unique combination of business and business writing acumen, with an extensive background in writing, editing, and content marketing management. She has expertise in both business and business writing. She has worked as a business writer and content writer, creating blog articles, reports, presentations, and editing business documents. She has supported many of our clients to rave reviews of her instruction and writing feedback, including California Water, Rohde & Schwarz, Morgan Stanley, the U.S. Army, the USDA, and many more. She holds a B.S. in Business & Economic Development from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and an M.B.A. from the University of North Carolina. Throughout her education, writing has been her passion. She loves sharing her skills. Elisabeth lives in Georgia with her cat and rescue pup. In addition to writing, she loves traveling with her twin sister, learning German, and creating watercolor prints.