English Idioms in the Business Context

An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. In other words, learning and knowing about these idioms can really save you from having a tough time understanding a native speaker in a business context.miscommunication

Bellow are some of the most commonly used idioms in the English language, along with explanations and examples on how to use them; compiled by Business English Resources.

IDIOM
WHAT IT MEANS
EXAMPLES
24/7 “24/7” means 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The convenience store on the corner is open 24/7.
a tough break When something unfortunate happens, it can be called a “tough break.” It was a tough break for us when Caroline quit. She was one of our top performers.
ahead of the curve To be “ahead of the curve” means to be more advanced than the competition. We’re investing a lot of money in research and development so we can stay ahead of the curve.
ahead of the pack To be “ahead of the pack” means to be better or more successful than the competition. If we want to stay ahead of the pack, we’re going to have to work really hard and continue to innovate.
ASAP “ASAP” is an acronym for “as soon as possible.” I need to finish these reports. My boss needs them ASAP.
at stake “At stake” means at risk. I’n a little nervous about giving this presentation. There’s a lot at stake.
back to square one To go “back to square one” means to start something over again. Our programmers identified what they thought the problem was with the software. After working for several hours, it turns out that the problem is something totally different, so it looks like we have to go back to square one.
back to the drawing board To go “back to the drawing board” means to start something over again, and go back to the planning stage of something. The prototype wasn’t successful. We have to go back to the drawing board.
backroom deal A ¨backroom deal¨ is an agreement or decision that is made without the public knowing about it. I think they got the government contract because of a backroom deal.
ballpark number A ¨ballpark number¨ is a very inexact estimate. I´m not sure what a Super Bowl commercial costs, but to give you a ballpark figure, I´d say about three million dollars.
behind someone’s back To do something “behind someone’s back” means to do something without someone’s knowledge and in a way that is not fair. She didn’t think it would be fair to go behind his back and talk to management, so she confronted him directly.
behind the scenes What happens in secret or not in front of the general public is said to happen “behind the scenes.” They make it look so effortless, but they do a lot of hard work and planning behind the scenes.
big picture Everything that is involved with a particular situation is called “the big picture.” Even though we all have very specific tasks to do, our manager makes sure we don’t lose sight of the big picture.
blue collar A ¨blue collar worker¨ is someone who works with his or her hands (manufacturing, construction, maintenance, etc.) The opposite is a ¨white collar worker.¨ A white collar worker is someone who works in an office (customer service, management, sales, etc.) ¨Blue collar¨(and ¨white collar¨) can also be used to describe a job, position, or a place. It’s a blue collar town with a lot of farmers and factory workers.
by the book To do things “by the book” means to do things according to company policy or law. It means to follow the rules 100%. There are a lot of regulatory industries that audit us on a regular basis. It’s important that we do everything by the book.
call it a day To “call it a day” means to decide to stop working for the day. Well, John, it’s 7:00 and I’m getting hungry. How about we call it a day?
catch someone off guard To ¨catch someone off guard¨ means to surprise someone by doing something that he or she was not expecting. Mike was caught off guard when they asked him to direct the meeting.
cave (or cave in) If someone “caves” or “caves in” it means that the person gives in to something or agrees to something that he or she previously did not want to accept. The employees complained about the change in policy, but the supervisor refused to cave in.
change of pace ¨A change of pace¨is something different from a normal routine or schedule. It´s nice to go on business trips because
it´s a change of pace.
come up short To “come up short¨ means to try to achieve something but fail. We often say that someone has ¨come up short¨ when someone fails to achieve a goal, but not completely. The charity fund raiser was supposed to raise three million dollars, but they came up short.
corner a market To “corner a market” means to dominate a particular market. Apple has cornered the market on mp3 players. They have a very large percentage of market share.
cut corners To “cut corners” means to take shortcuts and find an easier or cheaper way to do something. We don’t cut corners on our luxury products. They are all made to high standards with materials of the highest quality.
cut one’s losses If you stop doing something that is unproductive and won’t ever generate results, you “cut your losses.” Advertising through that company was expensive and we didn’t see an increase in sales. So, we decided to cut our losses and stop doing business with them.
cut-throat “Cut-throat” is used to describe something that is very intense, aggressive and merciless. In business school, the competition was cut-throat.
diamond in the rough A “diamond in the rough” is something or someone that has a lot of potential but first requires a lot of work. He was a diamond in the rough. He was really intelligent and had great ideas, but his management and English skills weren’t very good.
easy come, easy go “Easy come, easy go,” is an expression used to communicate that something gained easily is also lost easily. We use this expression after something has been lost. A lot of people who inherit money waste it on stupid things. I guess it’s easy come, easy go.
fifty-fifty “Fifty-fifty” means something is divided equally — 50% for one person, 50% for the other person. My business partner and I split everything fifty-fifty.
from the ground up If you start a business, project, or something else from zero, you start it “from the ground up.” Bill Gates built Microsoft from the ground up.
game plan A ¨game plan¨ is a strategy or plan. They’re not sure what their game plan is for the upcoming election.
get back in/into the swing of things To “get back in/into the swing of things” means to get used to doing something after you have had a break from that activity. Our company shuts down operations for three weeks during the holiday season. When I go back to work in January, it’s always difficult to get back in the swing of things.
get down to business To “get down to business” means to stop making small talk and start talking about serious topics related to business. Well, everyone’s here, and I know everyone is very busy. So, let’s get down to business and talk about the proposal.
get something off the ground To “get something off the ground” means to start a project or business. We’re very glad that the planning process is over. We’re looking forward to getting the project off the ground.
get the ball rolling To “get the ball rolling¨means to start something (a work project, for example). We really need to get the ball rolling on this project. The deadline is in June, and it’s already April.
get/be on the good side of someone If someone likes you, you are “on the good side” of that person. I always remember my coworkers’ birthdays and get them a card or small gift. I like to get on people’s good side.
get/have foot in the door To “get or have your foot in the door” means to take a low-level position with a company with the goal of eventually getting a better position with the same company in the future. My son just took a low-paying internship position with a large company. He was happy to get his foot in the door at a well-known, respected company.
give someone a pat on the back To “give someone a pat on the back” means to tell someone that he or she did a good job. The boss gave Brian a pat on the back for coming up with such a good idea.
give something/someone the thumbs down To “give something or someone the thumbs down” means to deny approval. I can’t believe she gave us the thumbs down. I thought it was a great idea.
give something/someone the thumbs up To “give something or someone the thumbs up” means to approve. They gave our new proposal the thumbs up. We’re going out to celebrate tonight.
go broke To “go broke” means to go bankrupt or to lose all the money a person or business had. There was too much competition and their expenses were too high. They eventually went broke.
go down the drain When you waste or lose something, it is said to “go down the drain.” He dropped out of college in his third year and never continued his studies. All of his hard work and money went down the drain.
go the extra mile To “go the extra mile” means to do more than what people expect of you. We go the extra mile for our customers. If someone is dissatisfied with a purchase, we refund their money and offer them a discount on their next purchase.
go through the roof If something is ¨going through the roof,¨ it means it is increasing very quickly. We’re really happy that our number of Facebook followers has gone through the roof.
gray area If something is in a ¨gray area¨ it means that it is something undefined that is not easily categorized. I asked our lawyers if it was legal, and they said it wasn’t clear. It’s in a gray area.
ground-breaking If something is ¨ground-breaking¨ it means it is new and innovative. The iPhone was a ground-breaking piece of technology when it was released in 2008.
hands are tied If you do not have any control over a situation, your “hands are tied.” I would love to get you a job at my company, but my hands are tied. Management isn’t hiring any additional employees this year.
have someone’s work cut out If you have a lot of work to do or a particularly difficult assignment, you “have your work cut out for you.” She has to sell $35,000 worth of products by the end of the month. She has her work cut out for her.
hit the nail on the head To “hit the nail on the head” means to do or say something 100% correctly. I agree with John 100%. I think he really hit the nail on the head.
in a nutshell “In a nutshell” means in a few words. In a nutshell, this book is about how to motivate employees.
in full swing If a project is “in full swing,” it means that it has been completely started and that it is progressing or moving as fast as it ever will. Construction on the new site is in full swing now.
in the black If a company is “in the black,” it means that they are making a profit. We’re not having a great year, but at least we’re in the black.
in the driver’s seat To be ¨in the driver´s seat¨ means to be in control. I’m not used to being in the driver’s seat. I should probably buy some management books.
in the red If a company is “in the red,” it means that they are not profitable and are operating at a loss. When I started my own business, we were in the red for the first two years. We didn’t see a profit until the third year.
keep your eye on the ball To “keep your eye on the ball¨ means to focus and concentrate on what you want to achieve. I know we can do it. We just need to keep our eye on the ball and not lose our focus.
last straw The “last straw” means the last annoyance, disturbance, or betrayal which causes someone to give up, lose his or her patience, or become very angry. Our boss was unhappy with Brian’s performance for a while, but when he came to work three hours late without calling, it was the last straw.
learn the ropes To “learn the ropes¨means to learn the basics of something. I like my new position.
I´m starting to learn the ropes.
long shot A “long shot” is something that has a very low probability of happening. Winning the lottery is a long shot, but millions of people still buy lottery tickets.
loophole A legal “loophole” occurs If a law is unclear or omits information. This lack of legal clarity allows people or corporations to take advantage of the situation and pay less in taxes or gain some other advantage. Some people complain that millionaires avoid paying taxes by finding loopholes in tax laws.
lose ground (opposite is to “gain ground”) To “lose ground” means to lose some type of an advantage (market share, for example) to a competitor. Apple lost some ground to Samsung last quarter.
lose-lose situation (also called a “no-win situation”) A “lose-lose situation” is when someone has to choose between various options and all the options are bad. It’s a lose-lose situation. If they lay off more workers, they’ll get bad press. If they don’t lay off more workers, they won’t be able to compete.
nine-to-five A “nine-to-five” is a job during normal working hours. The term came into existence because many work days start at 9 AM and end at 5 PM. She was tired of working a nine-to-five job, so she took her savings and started a restaurant.
no brainer If a decision is really obvious or really easy to make, the decision is a “no brainer.” Taking the new job was a no brainer. They offered me more money, a better schedule, and more vacation days.
no strings attached If something is given without expecting anything in return, it is given with “no strings attached.” They will let you try the product for free with no strings attached. If you don’t like it, there is no pressure to buy it or give them anything in return.
no time to lose If there is “no time to lose,” it means that there is a lot of pressure to complete something quickly. I told them I’d send the email by the end of the day and it’s already 4:45. I need to get to work. There’s no time to lose.
not going to fly If a solution isn’t effective, people say that it “isn’t going to fly.” I don’t think that idea’s going to fly. Let’s keep generating ideas.
off the top of one’s head If someone says something “off the top of his or her head,” it means that he or she gives a response without thinking about it for a long time or doing any research on the subject. I have no idea how many branches they have. Off the top of my head, I’d say about 20.
on a roll If someone is “on a roll,” it means that he or she has had several successes in a row. Our profits have been above our projected numbers for five months in a row. We’re really on a roll.
on the ball To be “one the ball” means to be alert and aware of things. My new personal assistant is working out well. He’s really on the ball.
on the same page page If two people are “on the same page,” they are in agreement about something. Let’s go over the details of what we agreed on just to make sure that we’re on the same page.
on top of something To be “on top of something” means to be in control of a situation and aware of changes. I read a lot to stay on top of the latest changes in my industry.
on your toes To be “on your toes” means to be alert. Stay on your toes. Anything can happen.
out in the open If something is “out in the open” it is public knowledge and not hidden from people. I think it’s a good policy to do things out in the open because people get suspicious if you do things in secret.
out of the loop (opposite: in the loop) To be ¨out of the loop¨ means to not know something that a select group of people knows. The opposite, ¨to be in the loop,¨ means to be part of a select group with knowledge that others do not have. I felt like I was out of the loop after being on vacation for two weeks.
pink slip If someone gets the “pink slip,” it means they have been fired. They gave him the pink slip. He wasn’t performing very well.
play hardball To “play hardball” means to be competitive in a cruel way and without showing mercy. Playing hardball means doing anything possible to win. He played hardball to get where he is, so I would be careful what you say and do around him.
put all someone’s eggs in one basket To “put all someone’s eggs in one basket,” means to rely on only one thing to bring you success. It’s not good to only invest in the stock market. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.
put the cart before the horse To “put the cart before the horse” means to do or think about things in the wrong order. They were trying to find investors without even having a business plan. They were putting the cart before the horse.
raise the bar To “raise the bar” means to set the standards or expectations higher, usually by achieving or creating something better than what had previously existed. The new software is getting great reviews. It looks like they’ve really raised the bar for the competition.
read between the lines To “read between the lines” means to understand something that wasn’t communicated directly. Reading between the lines involves understanding what someone is implying or suggesting but not saying directly. He didn’t say that he wants to leave the company, but I can read between the lines. He’s thinking of getting a new job.
red tape “Red tape” refers to excessive rules, procedures, and regulations that make it difficult to accomplish something. We usually use “red tape” to talk about government requirements that create difficult, time-consuming barriers for people and businesses. The new law is going to create a lot of extra red tape and we’re going to have to pay our lawyers a lot more money.
rock the boat To “rock the boat” means to cause problems or disrupt a peaceful situation. He thought about demanding a raise, but then he decided he didn’t want to rock the boat.
round-the-clock “Round the clock” means 24 hours a day. We have round-the-clock production at all our manufacturing facilities.
run/go around in circles To “run (or go) around in circles” means to do the same thing over and over again without getting any results. I’ve made phone calls all day and haven’t made a single sale. I feel like I’ve been running around in circles all day.
safe bet A “safe bet” means something that will probably happen. It’s a safe bet that smart phones will be much more advanced in 10 years.
same boat If people are in the same difficult situation, they are in the “same boat.” We’re all worried about losing our jobs. We’re in the same boat.
second nature When someone learns how to do something so well that it appears that he or she was born knowing how to do it, we say that the activity is “second nature” to him or her. He’s been a computer programmer for ten years. At this point, programming is second nature him.
see eye to eye To ¨see eye to eye¨ with someone means to agree with that person. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I respect her opinions and appreciate her honesty.
see something through To “see something through” means to do something until it is finished. I told my boss that I really wanted to see my current project through before taking on another project.
sever ties To “sever ties” means to end a relationship. We had to sever ties with several of our suppliers due to late shipments.
shoot something down To “shoot something down” means to deny something, such as a proposal or idea. It’s best not to shoot ideas down during a brainstorming session. The goal is to generate ideas, not to criticize them.
sky’s the limit If there is no limit to the possibilities of something, people often say “the sky’s the limit.” With their commission structure, the sky’s the limit to what you can make.
small talk ¨Small talk¨ is conversation about unimportant topics that do not offend people (the weather, for example). We typically spend about 15 minutes making small talk before we start our meetings.
smooth sailing (or clear sailing) “Smooth sailing” is a term used to describe a situation where success is achieved without difficulties. Once our largest competitor went out of business, it was smooth sailing.
snail mail ¨Snail mail¨ is the term used for the traditional mail that goes through the post office. The term is used because a ¨snail¨ is a slow-moving animal. If you want to fill out form 52-E and send it to the government, you have to do it using snail mail. They don’t allow you to scan the document.
stand one’s ground If you “stand your ground,” it means that you will not change your opinion or position on an issue. We tried to change the dress code, but Human Resources stood their ground.
start off on the right foot To “start off on the right foot” means to start something in a positive way. We offered them a very generous price on their first order and everything shipped on time. We really started off on the right foot.
start off on the wrong foot To “start off on the wrong foot” means to start something in a negative way. I just switched cable companies. They overcharged me for the first month’s service. They really started off on the wrong foot.
state of the art Something that is ¨state of the art¨ is modern and technologically advanced. Bill Gates lives in a state-of-the-art home with a lot of modern technology that most people don’t have access to.
take something lying down To “take something lying down¨ means to accept something unpleasant without fighting back. The proposed law would kill our industry, but we’re not going to take it lying down. We’re going to fight back and try to make sure the law doesn’t get passed.
take the bull by the horns To “take the bull by the horns¨ means to directly confront a difficult situation. One of our mid-level managers wasn’t very popular and was causing some problems, so we took the bull by the horns and replaced him with somebody else.
talk someone into something To “talk someone into something” means to convince someone to do something. I was hesitant to redesign our website, but my employees talked me into it. I’m glad they did. The new site is much better than the previous one.
talk someone out of something To “talk someone out of something” means to convince someone not to do something. I wanted to make a real estate investment, but my financial adviser talked me out of it.
the elephant in the room “The elephant in the room” refers to a big problem or controversial issue which is obvious, but which no one wants to talk about. We should have been talking about our huge debt, but it seemed like no one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room.
think big To “think big” means to have high goals and big plans for the future. I’m not content with just opening one or two more stores. I’m thinking big — I think we can open 10 more stores in the next five years.
think outside the box To “think outside the box” means to think of creative solutions instead of common ones. Thinking outside the box involves thinking of unconventional ideas. Creating a completely new product that no one has ever sold before is an example of thinking outside the box.
throw in the towel To “throw in the towel” means to quit. I was trying to learn Portuguese, but I got frustrated and threw in the towel.
time’s up “Time’s up” means that the time for something or someone has ended. I think his time’s up as the CEO. They’re going to replace him as soon as they find a suitable candidate.
touch base To “touch base¨ means to make contact with someone. Let me make a few phone calls to try to get an answer to your question. I’ll touch base with you later today.
twist someone’s arm To “twist someone’s arm” means to persuade or convince someone to do something that he or she does not want to do. The owner thought the advertising budget was a little high. We had to twist his arm to get him to agree to it.
under the table Something done secretly (and usually illegally) in the business world is done “under the table.” To avoid paying taxes, they paid some of their employees under the table.
up in the air If something is undecided, it is “up in the air.” We’re looking for a test market right now, but nothing has been decided yet. Everything’s still up in the air.
uphill battle Something that is difficult to achieve because of obstacles and difficulties is an ¨uphill battle.¨ Winning the election is going to be an uphill battle. He doesn’t have a lot of support at the moment.
upper hand If someone has an advantage over someone else, he or she has the “upper hand.” He was more experienced and well respected, so he had the upper hand in the argument.
white collar A ¨white collar worker¨ is someone who works in an office (customer service, management, sales, etc.) The opposite of a white collar worker is a ¨blue collar worker.¨ A blue collar worker is someone who works with his or her hands (manufacturing, construction, maintenance, etc.) ¨White collar¨ (and ¨blue collar¨can also be used to describe a job, position, or place. There are mostly manufacturing positions here. There aren’t a lot of white-collar jobs here.
win-win situation A “win-win situation” is a situation where everyone involved gains something. We were happy to get the contract, and they were happy to get such a good price. It was a win-win situation.
word of mouth If something spreads by “word of mouth,” people hear about it by informal conversation with friends, family members, acquaintances, etc. A lot of local restaurants rely on word of mouth to get new customers.
writing on the wall The “writing on the wall” refers to the evidence and clues that something (usually negative) is going to happen. I’m going to get my resume ready. I can see the writing on the wall.
yes man A ¨yes man¨ is someone who always agrees with his or her superiors. The company isn’t looking to hire someone who is going to try to make a lot of changes. They’re basically just looking for a yes man.

Find out more about business vocabulary on the Business Vocabulary section of the Business English Ressources site.

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