50 Idioms for Business English

If you truly wish to master business English or legal English, you need to learn idioms.

A good command of Business English is not purely about speaking correctly. It is also about how to use idioms and phrasal verbs confidently. It goes without saying that understanding idioms is an essential tool for communicating in the workplace. If you do not understand English idioms, you will easily get lost in conversations with native speakers.

In order to help you find your way through the maze of business idioms, we have compiled a list of 50 idioms for business English with their definitions and examples on how to use them.

And click the link if you are looking for a course on The Idioms of Business English.

A long shotSomething with little chance of success.We could try and get that account but it’s a bit of a long shot.
Back to square oneTo start something over again because a previous attempt failed.We have tried all we can think of so now it’s back to square one, I guess.
Ballpark figureA rough estimateCan you give me a ballpark figure on the costs of refurbishing the meeting room?
Bigger pictureThe whole situation rather than minor details.Working on all these details, we have lost sight of the bigger picture.
By the bookTo do everything according to the rules or the lawHis boss seems to do everything by the book so things can take a long time.
Corner the marketTo be number one in a particular marketWe have cornered the market in security personnel throughout the region.
Cut cornersTo do things as cheaply and as quickly as possible They cut corners on the project in order to get it completed on time.
Dog-eat-dogVery intense and aggressive competitionCompetition between language schools is very dog-eat-dog.
Fine printSmall details (usually in a contract).Make sure you read the fine print before signing up to anything.
Get down to businessStop making small talk and start talking about serious business topicsNow that everyone’s here, let’s get down to business and start with the presentation.
Get something off the groundTo start something (e.g. a project or a business)Now that we have finished the planning phase, we’re eager the get the project off the ground.
Go down the drainTo lose something after working on it.That’s all that time we spent trying to hire him gone down the drain for nothing.
Go the extra mileTo do more than what people expectTo give our customers the best shopping experience, we go the extra mile.
Hands are tiedNot being free to behave in the way that you would likeI’d love to help you, but my hands are tied.
Hit the nail on the headTo be exactly correct about something.Melissa hit the nail on the head when she mentioned the budget.
In full swingAt a stage when the level of activity is at its highestConstruction of our new production site is in full swing now.
In the driver’s seatTo be in charge or in control of a situationBeing offered the position of managing director, I’ll soon be in the driver’s seat.
Keep one’s eye on the ballTo give something one’s full attention and to not lose focusWe should not diversify our product offering too much, but rather keep our eyes on the ball.
Learn the ropesTo learn the basics of somethingAs a trainee lawyer, the main thing you’re doing is learning the ropes.
Long shotSomething that has a very low probability of happeningThey said it was a long shot when we tried to expand into the US.
Nitty-grittyThe specific facts or detailsLet’s get down to the nitty-gritty and see if we can make this deal work.
No strings attachedSomething is given without anything expected in return.You can try out the car with no strings attached.
On a shoestringVery low budgetThe project is operating on a shoestring budget at the moment.
On the same pageTo agree about somethingLet’s go over the contract again to make sure we’re on the same page.
Out in the openSomething that is public knowledge and not secret anymoreOur financials our out in the open anyway.
Put all one’s eggs in one basketTo rely on only one thing to bring successIt’s not smart to invest in one stock only and put all one’s eggs in one basket.
Ramp upTo increaseWe have had to ramp up production to deal with all these new customers.
Raise the barTo set higher expectations.Steve Jobs raised the bar for how a presentation should be delivered.
Red tapeOfficial rules and processes that seem excessive and unnecessaryThe new government has promised to cut red tape for businesses.
Rock the boatTo say something that will cause problemsDon’t rock the boat until the deal has been signed.
Safe betSomething that is certain to happenIt’s a safe bet that Amazon will still be the number one company in ten years.
Same boatTo be in the same difficult situation as someone elseNone of us has a job, so we’re all in the same boat.
See eye to eyeTo agree with somebodyMy boss doesn’t see eye to eye with me about our marketing campaign.
See something throughTo continue until something is finishedI want to see this role through before looking for my next job.
Sever tiesTo end a relationshipWe had to sever ties with the supplier due to delays.
Sleep on itTo consider something for a time (usually overnight)Let’s sleep on it and we’ll come back tomorrow.
Smooth sailingA situation where success is achieved without difficultiesOnce our largest competitor went out of business, it was smooth sailing.
Stand one’s groundTo not change your positionYou have to stand your ground if he tries to change your mind.
Take the bull by the hornsTo directly confront a difficult situation in a brave and determined wayMiddle managers at the firm were constantly delaying projects, so I took the bull by the horns and told the CEO.
Take with a pinch (UK)/grain (USA) of saltDo not accept it entirely.He says that he can get the sale but I’d take it with a pinch of salt.
Talk someone out of somethingTo convince someone not to do somethingWe wanted to take on more debt, but our CFO talked us out of it.
The elephant in the roomAn obvious problem that no one wants to talk about.We should have discussed the takeover, but no one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room.
Think outside the boxTo think of creative, unconventional solutions instead of common ones.Our current approach will get us nowhere. We have to think outside the box.
Time’s upWe have reached the time when something or somebody has finished.Time’s up for the manager of Manchester United. His replacement has already been hired.
Touch baseTo make contact with someone.I will touch base with you later today.
Twist someone’s armTo convince someone to do something that they would prefer not to do.My boss thought the budget was too high, so I had to twist his arm to get him to agree.
Up in the airSomething is undecided or uncertainOur international expansion plan is still up in the air.
Uphill battleSomething that is difficult to achieve because of obstacles and difficultiesGaining market share in the retail sector will be an uphill battle due to tough competition.
Upper handTo have more power than anyone else Due to my experience, I easily had the upper hand in the negotiation.
Word-of-mouthPeople talking positively about an experience that they have had.Their coffee shop doesn’t do any social media – they just rely on word-of-mouth.

All fifty of the idioms in the table are common expressions used consistently in offices across the English-speaking world. If you learn them and use them then you will be another step along the way in your journey to mastering business English.

If you want to learn more about The Idioms of Business English and how to use them, invest in a lifetime’s access to our course. You can also contact us for lessons with one of our Business English teachers.

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