Idioms & Phrasal Verbs in English Business Writing [Common Mistakes]

Katie Almeida Spencer
Post by Katie Almeida Spencer
Originally published July 7, 2021, updated December 22, 2023
Idioms & Phrasal Verbs in English Business Writing [Common Mistakes]

Strong English business writing is much the same as strong business writing in other languages. Key elements include reader focus, specific yet tight content, a clear structure, and clean grammar. 

Business writing in the English language does have some particularities, though. In this article, we’ll focus on common idioms and phrasal verbs in American English business writing.

If you are a non-native speaker, this is a topic that you’ll want to understand and investigate to make your writing sound more natural

If you are a native English speaker, it’s crucial to be aware of your use of idioms like phrasal verbs. As we’ve established, most of the time, good business writing skills transfer very well to global audiences. However, there are some confusing constructions that global business writers should try to avoid. As businesses become more international, so must our writing. Culturally-specific idioms and phrasal verbs are challenging for international readers.


So let’s back up a step! What exactly is an idiom? And what is the meaning of phrasal verbs?

An English idiom is a group of words that expresses an idea whose meaning can not be determined by understanding each individual word. 

Here is an idiom example: “missed the boat

This is an expression, an idiom, signifying that someone has missed an important opportunity, or is behind a trend. However, someone who understands each word in this sentence may not understand the meaning. It is culturally specific and doesn’t directly translate.

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are a type of idiom. They are phrases made up of an English verb and a preposition that mean something other than what the two words mean independently. If we made this into a formula, it would look like this: verb + preposition = new meaning.

Example: “bring up

Adding the preposition “to” to the verb “bring” changes the meaning. We might substitute the words “discuss” or “mention” to achieve greater clarity for all readers.

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Phrasal verbs are common in English, but they are difficult for global audiences. You cannot deduce the meaning based on the two words alone, they can be difficult to find in a dictionary, and they are different from one English-speaking country to another. (Ever notice that the British call to-go food “take away” while in the U.S. it’s called “take out?”)

For that reason, if you are writing for a global audience, we recommend reducing or eliminating your use of phrasal verbs. On the other hand, if you are a non-native English speaker writing to primarily native speakers, inserting a few phrasal verbs can demonstrate fluency and language mastery

Examples & Mistakes

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of phrasal verbs, and the synonymous one-word verbs you could use instead:

The markets are blowing up right now.

In this example, the literal meaning is not someone blowing air up into the sky, so this could be hard to decode. It's figurative language. Instead, say:

The markets are exploding right now.  

The use of the synonymous one-word verb exploding makes the sentence accessible for all readers, not just those who speak a particular variety of English.

Here’s another example:

We need to look into that option.

In this sentence, we are not literally looking into a box or the refrigerator, so this also could be hard to understand. Instead, we should say:

We need to research that option.

In both examples, there is a one-word verb that means the same thing as the phrasal verb.

When writing for a global audience, it’s often better to use the synonymous one-word verb because it is easier to understand and far easier to look up if your reader doesn’t understand it.

Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Reminders

In business writing, we’re always seeking clear and efficient ways to express our ideas and move information. This directness should always be a primary goal. Depending on the other goals and needs that you have for your business writing, your use of language will change.

As we’ve discussed, if you are a writer creating content for global audiences, you should be aware of your use of idiomatic phrases and phrasal verbs that can cause confusion. 

As a non-native writer, you may want to display your language skills and understanding of commonly used American idioms and expressions. In that case, phrasal verbs are your friends. 

Everything in good business writing comes down to an understanding of your reader and purpose, phrasal verbs and idioms included.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy our full list of business writing tips.

For readers looking to improve their English business writing skills, we offer a full business writing course for non-native speakers.


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Katie Almeida Spencer
Post by Katie Almeida Spencer
Originally published July 7, 2021, updated December 22, 2023
Katie is an experienced Business Writing and English as a Second Language instructor, business writing coach, and teacher trainer. She taught Business and Academic Writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Boston.