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The 30 Business English Idioms You Absolutely Need

Discovering new English idioms and expressions can be a lot of fun. They will help you feel more confident in English. Using idiomatic expressions will help you sound more like a native-speaker and build stronger relationships. However, it can also be frustrating, especially when you hear them for the first time in a setting where you want to make the best impression. In this post, you will find a compilation with all the idioms you need to know for the workplace. You can also download this free guide with 70+ idioms to use at work. You think you got this? Take this idioms quiz and test your level.

What is an idiom?

​​An idiom is a group of words that is expressed in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own.

  • Fixed order: these expressions don't leave much room for variablity. For example, the idiom to throw in the towel (to give up), doesn't work if you say to throw the towel* or to throw in the napkin
  • ​​Particular meaning: knowing all the different words in an idiom doesn't guarantee that you will know the meaning. If we take the same previous example, to throw in the towel, doesn't necessarily mean that there was a towel that you threw in. 

How will idioms help you feel more confident?

Most idioms and expressions you’ll come across in office environments are throwaway lines that are not industry specific. In other words, knowing them has nothing to do with how well you do your job. But because they come up so often in conversation, in meetings, and in emails, it’ll be important for your language learning to know when and how to use them.

Download Free Ebook - Idioms

Idioms will help you feel more confident in English for different reasons. First of all, you will be able to understand native-English speakers more easily. Idiomatic expressions are part of our day-to-day conversations, and they are all too common in today's business world. By understanding all those odd-sounding phrases, you will be able to follow the conversation with ease.

Learning idioms is also a great way to use new phrases in context. When you learn a new idiom, you usually learn the whole expression in a specific situation –rather than isolated words out of context. This means that whenever a similar situation arises, you will have a 'pre-packaged' phrase or idiom ready to use.

The ultimate confidence-booster with idioms is that you will be able to express yourself more similar to how you do it in your native language. You also have idioms in your mother tongue, and learning those equivalents in English will give you the edge you're missing. Idioms allow you to be more subtle and funny, even in more sensitive situations. They are a great way of saying something without actually having to spell it out.

30 Business English Idioms You Abolutely Need

Keep scrolling to find all the topics, but if you're looking for a list with the must-know idioms, here are the 30 most common ones in business.

1) Learn the ropes 🪢
2) That won’t cut it ✂️
3) The ball is in your court 🎾
4) Behind the scenes 🎭
5) On the same page 📄
6) Sleep on it 😴
7) Call it a day 👋🏼
8) In a nutshell 🥜
9) It's a long shot ⛹🏻
10) To touch base ⚾
11) Kill two birds with one stone 🦜🦜
12) Let’s table it 🙊
13) In the same boat ⛵
14) In the bag 💰
15) Move the needle 🪡
16) Lots of moving parts ⚙️🔩
17) Get your ducks in a row 🦆🦆
18) Put out fires 🔥
19) Cut corners ✂️
20) On a shoestring 👟
21) Cut to the chase 🏃🏽🚓
22) Bend over backwards 🤸🏼‍♂️
23) A win-win situation 🏆🏆
24) Cool as a cucumber 🥒
25) Go back to the drawing board 🎨🖌️
26) Hot potato 🥔
27) Beat the clock ⏰
28) Take with a grain of salt 🧂🤏🏼
29) Think outside the box 📦💡
30) The elephant in the room 🐘

 

1) Learn the ropes 🪢

Great idiom for when you're starting new job or learning a new skill. If you are going to sail, you will need to learn how to tie knots and manipulate the ropes that move the sails in the best way possible. That is the origin of our third idiom! 

Meaning: Learn how to do things or learn how things work.

Examples:

  • As a professional, you need to constantly learn the ropes to do really well in your career.
  • He still needs to learn the ropes, but he has great potential.

Keep reading: 8 Top English Idioms for Successful First Steps! [Pocast]

2) That won’t cut it ✂️

So, the question you might have is “Cut what?” Imagine a pair of scissors trying to cut through steel. It’s not enough. It won’t work. Whatever method you are using to solve your problem is simply insufficient.

Meaning: That will not be enough to do a task or cope with a situation.

Examples:

  • You can cram for the test, but that probably won’t cut it. You will need to study every day for several days in order to really understand the material.
  • They seem really upset. A simple apology won't cut it.

3) The ball is in your court 🎾

From the world of ships we go now to the world of sports. Whether it comes from tennis or from basketball, the idea is clear: it’s your turn to make a move.

Meaning: It’s your turn to make a decision or do something.

Examples:

  • I’ve done what I can. Now the ball is in your court.
  • Everybody in this company will support you if you decide to move to another country but the ball is in your court if you decide to change your mind at the last minute.
  • I've already told you that Talaera is a super cool option to learn English, but now the ball is in your court.

4) Behind the scenes 🎭

The equator of our list takes us to the theatre. Behind the scenes was originally used to talk about those events in a play that happen off stage, where the audience cannot see.

Meaning: Done privately or secretly, rather than publicly.

Examples:

  • There is a lot of negotiation going on behind the scenes.
  • I can tell there is a lot of work behind the scenes.
  • If you want to check out what happens behind the scenes at Talaera, visit our LinkedIn page.

5) On the same page 📄

It seems that the origin of this idiom is attributed to choral singing, when all singers had to be on the same page to be able to sing all together the same song.

Meaning: Understand each other and agree.

Examples:

  • Before we begin the discussion, I want to make sure that we are all on the same page.
  • I have a great connection with my manager, I always feel we are on the same page.

6) Sleep on it 😴

Meaning: Delay making a decision on something until the following day.

Example:

  • Let me sleep on it and give you an answer tomorrow.

Keep reading: 10 Helpful Decision Making Phrases [Podcast]

7) Call it a day 👋🏼

Meaning: Decide to stop working or doing an activity.

Examples:

  • I think we should call it a day and go home.
  • We have been working on this all day, why don’t we call it a day?

8) In a nutshell 🥜 

How much can you fit inside a nutshell? Not much. Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses it to mean something compact when he says  ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’.

Meaning: In summary, in a few words.

Examples:

  • She put the matter in a nutshell.
  • Our traffic is rising, customers are happy, and our revenue is still growing; in a nutshell, our business is a success.

9) It's a long shot ⛹🏻

Unless you’re Michael Jordan, long shots tend to have a small chance of succeeding. This is basically the idea of this idiom. It is often followed by "but", as we use it to indicate that despite the odds, we will try anyways.

Meaning: An attempt or guess with very small chance of succeeding or being accurate.

Examples:

  • I know it's a long shot, because there are many candidates, but I'm going to apply for the manager's job.
  • It's a long shot, but well worth trying.

10) To touch base ⚾

I bet you guessed, but just in case, this phrase refers to the rule that a runner in baseball must touch the base on which he/she is standing before running to the next base. In business, before taking an important action, you often “touch base” to get approval or make sure that it is a good idea.

Meaning: Briefly make or renew contact with someone. To update someone or have a quick conversation with them.

Examples:

  • I just wanted to touch base and make sure you hadn’t changed your mind about seeing me.
  • I just wanted to quickly touch base with you: did you get an email from my secretary about the meeting?

11) Kill two birds with one stone 🦜🦜

Meaning: Solve two problems with one action or solution.
Example

  • I might as well kill two birds with one stone and drop off my tax forms while I'm at the mall for the computer part I need.

Keep reading: 12 Perfect Success Idioms To Show Off At Work

12) Let’s table it 🙊

Meaning: Postpone a discussion or activity until later. Usually used near the end of a meeting when a conversation is dragging and everyone just wants to go home.
Example

  • You’ve all raised some good points. Let’s table this until next week’s meeting.

13) In the same boat 🚤

Meaning: To be in the same bad or difficult situation.

Examples

  • You filed the wrong paperwork, too? We’re in the same boat!
  • How are you feeling? I heard it's been tough for you, too. We're in the same boat.

14) In the bag 💰

Meaning: Certain or sure to be won, achieved, or obtained.

Examples:

  • The election is in the bag.
  • The negotiations are looking great, but the deal is not in the bag yet.

Keep reading: 30 Must-Know Idioms About Negotiations & Agreements

15) Move the needle 🪡

Meaning: To make a difference; to have a noticeable impact on something.

Examples: 

  • They hired her to increase sales, but her strategies failed to move the needle.
  • We need to move the needle on global poverty.

16) Lots of moving parts ⚙️🔩

Meaning: A complicated situation with a lot of variables or components. Usually used when it would take too long to explain something in detail.

Example

  • We’ve looked at some venues and talked to sponsors and next week we’re going to start working on the marketing for the event. There are lots of moving parts, but luckily we have a great team.

17) Get your ducks in a row 🦆🦆

There are a couple of theories regarding the origin of this idiom. The most obvious (and adorable) one is the way mother ducks organize their ducklings to walk in straight lines while travelling.

Meaning: Getting yourself organized before doing something.

Examples

  • Once we get our ducks in a row — do an appraisal, talk to the lawyers — it should be easy to sell the property.
  • I still need to get my ducks in a row, but I'm feeling quite optimistic about this new project.

18) Put out fires 🔥

Meaning: To deal with emergencies rather than ordinary day-to-day tasks.

Example:

  • I spent too much time putting out fires today with our servers that I didn't even have a chance to send my new proposal.

Keep reading: Your New 6 Idioms About Problems [Podcast]

19) Cut corners ✂️

Meaning: To skip small but important steps.

Examples: 

  • John’s team is making a lot of mistakes and it’s because they’re always cutting corners.
  • Whilst others may cut corners on small details, we insist on quality items.

20) On a shoestring 👟

Meaning: With very little money, with a small budget.

Examples:

  • When I was younger, I traveled to Thailand on a shoestring.
  • Surprisingly enough, the project was a success, even though we put it together on a shoestring.

Keep reading: Top Money Idioms You Need... At All Costs

21) Cut to the chase 🏃🏽🚓

Meaning: Get to the point, stop wasting time with chit chat.

Example: 

  • I have to be somewhere in twenty minutes, so can you just cut to the chase?
  • I know everyone is super busy today, so shall we cut to the chase?

22) Bend over backwards 🤸🏼‍♂️

Meaning: Go through a lot of trouble or discomfort to help someone out.

Examples: 

  • She's the kindest leader of all –you can see how she truly bends over backwards to keep everyone happy.
  • I bent over backwards to get her that job, and she is not even trying.

23) A win-win situation 🏆🏆

Meaning: A situation where every outcome is a good outcome.

Example: 

  • It will be a win-win situation for both foreign policy and the internal market.
  • Offering English training is a win-win situation -employees will gain confidence and the organization will get a high ROI.

24) Cool as a cucumber 🥒

Did you know that the inside of a cucumber is about 20 degrees cooler than the outside air? Well, this might be the origin of this idiom. 

MeaningExtremely calm, relaxed, and in control of your emotions.

Examples:

  • She was cool as a cucumber before the interview because she was well prepared.
  • It was a very important meeting, but I stayed cool as a cucumber because I knew our product was the best.

25) Go back to the drawing board 🎨🖌️

Meaning: Start over and go back to the beginning or the planning stage.

Example:

  • They should go back to the drawing board and review the whole issue of employee training.

Keep reading: Problems at Work? Learn These 18 Idioms About Challenges

26) Hot potato 🥔

You may use this one if you work with international teams! A hot potato is definitely something you don’t want to hold with your bare hands for a long time, because it would burn your fingers. The idea here is that you are dealing with something you want to pass on as quickly as possible, just like a literal hot potato.

Meaning: A controversial subject that no one wants to talk about; often an issue that makes everyone feel uncomfortable.

Examples:

  • Gun control is a political hot potato.
  • I try to avoid discussing about religion, it can be a hot potato.

27) Beat the clock ⏰

Meaning: Finish something before time is up, before a deadline.

Example:

  • Although he’s often late in the mornings, he somehow always manages to beat the clock and finishes his tasks before anyone else.

Keep reading: Once In A Blue Moon... And Other Great Time Idioms

28) Take with a grain of salt 🧂🤏🏼

Meaning: Be a bit skeptical about it. Only believe part of it. (UK version: take with a grain of salt)

Example:

  • Take everything she says with a pinch of salt, because she tends to exaggerate.

Keep reading: Top 11 Idioms About Talking To Show Off At Work

29) Think outside the box 📦💡

This idiom has become cliché (completely overused) in the business world, in particular. Yet, like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps on going. Small business owners are encouraged to “think outside of the box” when it comes to developing new ways to market their products. You probably gathered that this expression has nothing to do with actual boxes, but perhaps you can imagine your brain as a box. All of your run-of-the-mill (average) thoughts exist inside of the box, but your boss, teacher, or mentor wants you to reach beyond that to where the new and exciting ideas exist.

Meaning: think in an original, creative way.

Example: 

  • We'll need to think outside the box if we want to get this project off the ground.

Keep reading: 8 Helpful Idioms About Solving Problems For Every Situatio

30) The elephant in the room 🐘

Meaning: An obvious issue people don't want to talk about.

Example:

  • I know you all have very busy days, so perhaps we can start by addressing the elephant in the room?

Keep improving your business English

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[Article originally posted in September 2018 and updated in January 2022]

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