business english expressions

30+ Colorful Business English Expressions and Idioms to Help You Step Up to the Plate at Work

Why do so many business English expressions sound like they have nothing to do with work?

Take this example:

While talking to your coworkers about a big project, one woman says something about a “ballpark,” the place where a baseball game takes place.

What on earth was she talking about? Why is baseball involved in your business conversation?

Your coworker is now telling you: “I know we were going to play hardball but I really think we should just give them a ballpark figure.”

…What?

To your left, another coworker mutters under their breath: “Agreed, but we have to keep our eyes on the ball.”

…Huh?

They smile, hold out their hand for a handshake and say, “Right, let’s get the ball rolling.”

You’re frustrated and thinking, “Argh! Can everyone please stop talking about baseball?”

Take a deep breath. There’s nothing to worry about. These are just some business idioms that are easy to master once you know them.

In this article, we’ll show you more than 30 of the most common business English expressions you’re likely to encounter at work. They’ll help you make sense of strange conversations like the one above—or even use some business expressions yourself to sound like a more natural business English speaker.

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What Are Business English Expressions?

The business world is fast-paced, cutthroat (very competitive) and, just to make things a little bit more exciting, it also has its own unique language or “jargon.”

Combine business phases and sayings with the general weirdness of the English language and a simple conversation could become very uncomfortable.

The main thing you should know about business English expressions is that they often use comparisons or metaphors to make a point. As with the situation above, these are often related to sports.

For example, keeping your eye on the ball refers to staying focused on your goal—just like how a baseball player stays focused on the baseball as it comes toward them. It means that you don’t ever lose sight of what you want to achieve.

Knowing this can help you understand new business expressions when you hear them. Try to visualize the comparison that is being made, and use the context of the conversation for more information.

Ace Up Your Sleeve

Getting to grips with these business phrases and sayings will definitely put an ace up your sleeve, or give you a hidden advantage. Of course you’ll still have your work cut out for you (it’s tricky but you can do it!) so here are a few more fun and easy ways to continue building your knowledge of business expressions.

  • Subscribe to the FluentU English program. This gives you access to hundreds of real-world English videos with built-in language learning tools.

The videos include business dialogues, business news reports, inspiring speeches and more. Every video comes with interactive subtitles—just click any unfamiliar word for an instant definition, grammar info and useful examples! There are also flashcards and fun quizzes with every video to help you remember what you’ve learned.

With FluentU, you learn English the way native speakers really use it, and you never have to worry about missing a word, idiom or expression. Plus, you’ll also find thousands of general English videos on FluentU (like movie trailers, music videos, etc.) so you can build your everyday language skills too. Try FluentU on your computer or take it anywhere with the mobile apps for iOS and Android.

  • Keep a notebook handy to jot down any unfamiliar words or business idioms you hear while at work. When you get home, look them up.

TV: “The Office,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank” and “Dragon’s Den.”

Film: “Wall Street,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Social Network,” “Office Space,” “The Big Short,” “The Secret of my Success,” “Inside Job,” “Trading Places,” “Working Girl” and “Too Big to Fail.”

30+ Common Business English Expressions and Idioms You’ll Hear All the Time at the Office

This list is just the tip of the iceberg (oh yes, there are a lot more business English expressions!) but it will get you on the road to identifying and understanding some of the most commonly used business phrases and sayings.

Brass Tacks: Expressions for How Business Gets Done

Lots of business English expressions describe the act of working itself: how fast, intelligently, ethically or competently someone does their work. Similar business expressions also describe business failures and miscommunications.

All of these will be useful when discussing day-to-day work with your colleagues and clients.

Let’s Get Down to Brass Tacks

In other words, let’s get on with the business at hand. You might hear this at the start of a business meeting, after some brief introductions or socializing.

Above Board

You want to do things above board (the ethical and honest way) in business.

Go the Extra Mile

In the world of business, dedication and determination is often applauded. When you go the extra mile, that means you did more than just what was expected of you. This is a sure way to impress the boss and prove yourself to be hardworking, enthusiastic and driven.

Knuckle Down

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Your boss doesn’t want you to chit-chat and waste time! They want you to knuckle down, or concentrate on your work and get it done.

Hit the Ground Running

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This phrase often comes up before someone takes on a new job, role or project in the office. It refers to starting something new with full energy and focus on day one.

You’ll need to do some preparation beforehand if you want to truly hit the ground running—whether it’s getting accustomed to your new office layout, meeting new coworkers, etc. That way, you can knuckle down right from the start.

Play Hardball

Anyone who plays hardball is tough, ruthless and will not take “no” for an answer. Negotiating with these types can be a real challenge!

Overplay Your Hand

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Be careful that you don’t overplay your hand. Being overly-confident about your work and your chance of success may actually disadvantage you.

Red Tape

Nobody likes to encounter red tape when they’re trying to do their work. Red tape refers to excessive regulations and rules that you need to comply with before you can get your work done.

Hands Are Tied

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If red tape causes a delay in your project, you’ll have to tell your manager that your hands are tied. There’s just nothing you can do about the unfortunate situation.

The Wrong End of the Stick

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Success in business means not being left behind. This means becoming familiar with business idioms commonly used in the corporate world. Put in simpler terms, it means having a good and detailed knowledge of what’s being said.

So hopefully these business expressions will prevent you from getting the wrong end of the stick (not understanding something correctly). This phrase refers to a total misunderstanding of a situation, plan or idea.

Cash Cow: Business English Expressions About Money and Finances

Sadly, the term cash cow doesn’t refer to a farm animal made of actual money—but that would certainly be something cool to see! Learn this and several other business English expressions related to money below.

When it comes to money and finances, you definitely want to know what’s going on. Whether it’s financial transactions, the current financial state of a company or monetary strategies, there are many ways to talk about cash.

Cash Cow

Cash cow is a term for a product or investment that provides a steady income, usually an amount that far exceeds the initial startup cost.

For example, the Coca Cola company sells a lot of products from juices and teas to energy drinks, but the original Coke is likely their cash cow.

Shoestring Budget

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In the early stages of development, before investors become involved, many businesses and projects operate on a shoestring budget. This is simply another way to say “a very small/tight budget.”

Ballpark Figure

A ballpark figure may sound like the score at a baseball game, but it actually refers to a rough or approximate financial estimate.

Sleeping Partner

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You certainly don’t want to get the wrong end of the stick when your boss introduces you to a sleeping partner. This is a person closely connected to the company who may even be financing it, but there is no—I repeat, no—romance going on.

A sleeping partner gets this term because they’re not actively helping to manage the company, though they are invested in it. Another term for this is silent partner.

Go Belly Up

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If a project or business goes belly up, it has failed to generate profit. This could result in bankruptcy or the company going into receivership.

Deep Pockets

In the situation above, someone with deep pockets could help. This isn’t a reference to extreme tailoring! It means help in the form of a wealthy investor or group of investors.

In other words, someone with deep pockets simply has a lot of money to spare.

Take a Bath

Here’s one of those business expressions with a comparison that doesn’t really make sense.

Taking a bath can be a refreshing, relaxing thing. But not in the business world.

If you take a bath, it means you suffered a heavy financial loss. For example, if you’re a landlord who can’t find any tenants for your apartment, you’re taking a bath on your investment in the property.

Tighten Your Belt

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Just swap the word “belt” for “budget,” and this will be easy to remember. If you tighten your belt, you are cutting extra costs and trying to keep your budget lean (small; skinny).

If your company took a bath and losses are severe, it could lead to cuts being made. The company and employees will have to tighten their belts or reduce how much money is spent.

A Slice of the Pie

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When profits soar, you can guarantee employees will be looking for a share of the wealth or a slice of the pie. This business English expression simply refers to a portion of profits or benefits.

An alternative expression is a slice of the cake.

The Lion’s Share

The lion’s share is the “bulk” or “majority” of something.

Many well-run businesses reward hard work and it is only right that those employees who put in the most time, energy and effort should receive the lion’s share, or the bulk of the profits.

Golden Handcuffs

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While they may sound like some sort of toy, golden handcuffs (not real handcuffs) are financial incentives given to employees in order to persuade them not to leave a company.

Golden Handshake

Many executives have golden handshake clauses in their contracts. This refers to a financial package that the executive will receive if they lose their job.

Walking Papers

If you are given your walking papers, it means you have received a notice that you are being fired or laid off from your job.

Kickbacks

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The corporate world is tough. It may be tempting to beat out the competition by giving kickbacks, or payments for special favors (like winning a contract). But kickbacks are often unethical or even illegal—especially if they could be classified as bribes!

Time Is Money: Business English Expressions About Time and Deadlines

Okay, time isn’t really the same thing as money, but it certainly is a valuable commodity. Without further delay, here are some of the more popular business phrases and sayings to do with time.

Need It Yesterday

Just to reassure anyone who may be feeling confused, if your manager says, “I need it yesterday,” they do not expect you to construct a time machine.

Sure it would be great fun to fly around in “The Tardis” catching up on a seemingly never-ending to-do list, but your manager really means, “This should have been done sooner. I need it right now.”

ASAP

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Here’s a business English acronym you might be familiar with: ASAP stands for “as soon as possible.”

11th Hour

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Ever completed a project at the very last minute before its deadline? You finished it at the 11th hour.

24/7

When under pressure, many employees say they are working 24/7 (24 hours a day, seven days a week) in order to meet their deadlines. This doesn’t mean they are working all day, every day.

The term 24/7 is used to express hard work and long hours, usually in the hopes of avoiding finishing projects at the 11th hour.

No “I” in Team: Business English Expressions About Teamwork

The ability to work successfully with a partner or group is another important aspect of the business world. So it’s no surprise that a lot of business English expressions revolve around teamwork.

There’s No “I” in Team

There’s no “I” in team means that no one particular person takes all the credit for the achievements of a group effort. It’s kind of a cute phrase because the word “team” is not spelled using a letter “I.”

Team Player

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Lots of companies look for strong team players when they are hiring. They want someone who gets along well with others and supports a collaborative work environment.

Step Up to the Plate

Yep, here’s one more of those baseball-themed business English expressions!

If you step up to the plate, you take on a role or responsibility—usually a difficult one that others don’t want. This is a quality that companies look for in strong leaders.

Pass the Buck

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Someone who passes the buck probably isn’t a great team player, and they’re definitely not a good leader.

When you pass the buck, you make excuses and pass blame to someone else if things don’t go as planned.

 

Misunderstandings, inadvertently causing offense or not knowing what you’re supposed to do can slow your career advancement and may even prevent opportunities from coming your way. Understanding and correctly using business expressions with colleagues and customers will make you feel like a team player, a trusted and loyal part of the team/group.

It’s all about turning small opportunities into bigger ones and getting noticed for all the right reasons. So step up to the plate and learn these business English expressions! They’ll help you communicate much more fluently at work, and who knows—you might even wind up with a bigger slice of the pie.


Luna Raye is a freelance writer and holistic therapist. When not relaxing with aromatic oils, she blogs, writes for magazines and teaches English as a second language. One of her proudest achievements is becoming a member of The Funeverse, a free online poetry resource for children, teachers and parents.

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