20 Business English Idioms to Talk About Work… and Do a Healthy Amount of Gossip!

When non-native speakers of English interact with their English-speaking peers, they often feel tempted to use big words and complex grammar to show that they are in their element. 

However, the way to wow your coworkers is not to write emails with perfect punctuation or use difficult language, but to use the right language. And what is the right kind of language to use at the office?

Business English idioms.

These are informal, playful, often metaphorical expressions that people use at the workplace to send common meanings to one another. They are extremely helpful, potentially funny, and like all idioms, they are best learnt with examples like the ones below.

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1. A learning curve

 

A learning curve is the rate of a person’s progress at a new job or skill. (In your case, you can use this expression to talk about your amazing progress as you learn English). 

Example:

“I’m so sorry I screwed up at the meeting this morning”.

“Don’t worry, you’re just getting started! I’m sure you’re at the very beginning of a steep learning curve.”

 

2. Between a rock and a hard place

 

If you’re between a rock and a hard place, you have to choose between two equally unpleasant options, like when your parents said you could either eat your greens or go straight to bed.

Example:

“I’m afraid we are between a rock and a hard place here. We’ll have to reduce salaries or let a few people go”.

 

3. Blue-sky thinking

 

A way of thinking that is not restrained by the limitations of the present and therefore able to envision new ways of doing things.

Example:

“I think I know how we can get out of this crisis”.

“Oh, not you with your blue-sky thinking again, Steve”.

4. Bring something to the table

 

Bringing something to the table means that you are contributing to a group effort, usually by providing fresh ideas. Like most business English idioms, it can be applied to other contexts. 

Example:

“I don’t think that’s such a great idea”.

“Oh, you don’t? Well, let’s hear what you have to bring to the table then!”. 

 

5. Call the shots

 

If someone calls the shots, they take the initiative when it comes to making an important decision. 

Example:

“I’m so sad your design wasn’t received as well as you were expecting. Will you show the client a new model?”

“No. I’m completely blank. I think I’ll let Mark call the shots this time”.

 

6. Corner the market

 

In the financial world, cornering the market consists of getting hold of a particular product or asset in an attempt to control the market price.

Example:

“That’s some breakfast you have there, Mike. Are you trying to corner the market for doughnuts?”

 

7. Crunch the numbers

 

Like many other business English idioms, crunching the numbers refers to the action of studying or analysing numbers, especially to figure out how much money is needed or available.

Example:

“Shall we get Maria a present? It’s her birthday next week”.

“Oh, I’m not sure Tim, I’m a bit short of cash this month. Let me crunch the numbers and I’ll tell you tomorrow”. 

 

8. Cut-throat

 

A cut-throat situation is a fierce instance of competition in which ruthless measures can be expected. 

Example:

“If this Ronan guy doesn’t leave my client alone, I’ll crush him”

“Laura!”

“I told you, this is a cut-throat situation. There’s too much at risk.”

 

9. Small print (also known as “fine print” in the US)

 

Another way of saying “small letters”, small print refers to those parts of a document that not many people read, but that they may eventually regret not having read. 

Example:

“Did you hear? We’re going to be working fewer hours starting next month”

“What? But are they cutting down our salaries?”

“They’re NOT! That’s the greatest part. There’s no small print at all!”

10. Get down to business

 

Getting down to business means starting doing what needs to be done. (Like when you say to yourself you’ll watch just one more K-Pop video and then study your English business idioms.)

Example:

“Martin, should we leave Candy Crush for later and get down to business?”

 

11. Get something off the ground

 

If a project gets off the ground, it starts to operate or proceed in a way that seems to lead to success.

Example:

“How’s the Montgomery building doing?”

“What Montgomery building?”

“That tall tower you had been assigned…?”

“Oh, that never got off the ground I’m afraid”.

 

12. Get someone up to speed

 

If you get someone up to speed, you tell them the latest information about something so you both are at the same level of competence (or just so you can gossip about your coworkers’ latest news!)

Example: 

“Did you hear Martha is leaving the company?”

“What? No! Get me up to speed, please”.

 

13. Get your foot in the door

 

One of the most metaphorical business English idioms out there, this expression means to take the first step toward a professional goal, especially one that involves gaining entry into a company. 

Example:

“Did you know Sven is dating Pam?”

“Really? I didn’t know he liked her”.

“Maybe he’s trying to get his foot in the door…?”

 

14. Go the extra mile

 

Going the extra mile is to make a special effort in order to achieve a specific objective.

Example:

“Why are you carrying all those books, Jorge?”

“I’m trying to learn French in my free time”.

“Well, it looks like you’re really going the extra mile!”

 

15. Have a lot on your plate

 

Have a great deal (or simply too much) to do or memorise.

Example: 

“Excuse me, sir. We have already scheduled five meetings for tomorrow morning, don’t you think there’s too much on your plate already?”

 

16. Learn the ropes

 

Learning the ropes refers to the process of becoming familiar with the special way things are done at a particular job. 

Example:

“Susan, I’m sorry, how many business English idioms do you think I’ll have to memorise to get what people say around the office?”

“Oh don’t be silly, dear, you’ll learn the ropes very soon”.

“See what I mean?”

 

17. Miss the mark

 

If someone tells you that you have missed the mark, what they mean is you have failed at something or that something you’re saying is just wrong.

Example:

“According to my estimates, this will be our best year so far.”

“Well, your estimates do have a tendency to miss the mark, don’t they?”

 

18. On the back burner

 

We say that something is on the back burner when we consider it has low priority at any given time.

Example:

“Were you able to revise my petition about vegan food for the buffet?”

“Jack, with all due respect, that’s very much on the back burner. Do you have any idea how many problems we have right now?’” 

 

19. Raise the bar

 

Raising the bar means setting a higher standard or higher goals either for yourself or for the people working with you. 

Example:

“So, if we get slightly more profit than last year, can we call it a win?”

“Actually, I would like to raise the bar this time around”.

 

20. Slack off

 

Like most things in life, business English idioms sometimes have a negative counterpart. “Slack off”, for example, can be seen as the opposite of “raising the bar”, as it means to do something with less effort or energy than before. (Like when you say you will learn English every day but end up doing it once or twice a week!) Example:

“I have summoned you here today to talk about why the company has been slacking off lately, and what we all can do to raise the bar again”.

Now that you know how useful business English idioms can be around the office, how will you make sure you keep incorporating them into your English repertoire?

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While there are a thousand articles full of business English idioms that we could recommend you to read, we believe that the best way to help these phrases sink in is to take a personalised course with a native tutor. At Listen & Learn, we work with the best native English teachers to make sure they come up with tailor-made courses based on every student’s needs, interests and current level. Contact us now and we’ll match you with one of them for a free trial lesson so you can start to learn English for business today!