Want to improve your vocabulary for work? In this study guide, our experienced UK accountant and English teacher Kevin Simmons will walk you through the most useful business idioms. We’ve included a list of 45 idioms with clear definitions and examples to help you feel confident with your business English. Let’s go!
I’ve noticed that many of my English students struggle with business idioms. In this study guide, I have created a list of the most useful idioms to help you. I have put the terms in alphabetical order, given you an easy-to-remember definition, written some example sentences and provided some synonyms. I have also included some helpful tips and facts from my own experience working in business.
Kevin Simmons, UK Accountant & English Teacher
When a plan or idea has gone wrong in business, a company needs to think about a new plan or idea. So, to have to go back to the drawing board is an idiom meaning that a new idea or plan needs to be developed.
That new range of beers we introduced in the bar to attract new customers had no effect. We need more customers so we need to go back to the drawing board and come up with some fresh ideas!
In business, people always want to know what something will cost. Usually, they want the information immediately, which is probably before any proper information is available. So, a ballpark figure is a guess or a best estimate of what something might cost using all the information available at an early stage.
I know that you don’t have all the information ready, but just give me a ballpark figure for what you think it will cost to build the new football stadium.
Being in good shape is an idiom used to say that a company is doing well and is healthy. The idiom can also be used about people, teams or situations.
To be loaded is an informal idiom to mean that somebody is rich. Synonym include well off or wealthy. In the UK, we can also say to be minted.
My boss is loaded! He comes to work in a different sports car every day.
To be broke is the opposite of ‘to be loaded’. It means to have no available money. Being broke is not quite the same as being ‘poor’. Poor is a general and permanent situation, whereas broke is more temporary. Sometimes the idiom gets extended to flat broke.
I can’t afford to lose this job! If I do, I’ll be flat broke.
To break the bank means to spend a lot of the money, so you then have little money left. We often use this idiom in the negative to show that we can afford to buy something or that it is good value.
Manchester United have just broken the bank and bought Paul Pogba from Juventus for £90 million.
When you bring something to the table (or to the party), you contribute something useful to a conversation, plan or project.
We have employed outside consultants because we hope that their knowledge and expertise will bring something new to the table.
In business, when people talk about ‘the big picture’, they mean the overall and general situation in summary. ‘The big picture’ is the most important thing and you don’t mention any other details.
Our customers tend to just look at the big picture and don’t bother with the technical details. Is the new version of our product better than the last one – yes or no?
To cook the books is an idiom that means to alter the finances of a company in a dishonest or illegal way. Often, an accountant who is cooking the books will be either stealing from the company or covering up his mistakes, so that nobody sees them.
Sam had to lie and cook the books in order to fool the shareholders into thinking the company was still making a profit.
To corner the market is an idiom that means to be more successful than all the other companies at selling a product or service. It also means to buy so many shares of companies in one industry (or to buy so much of the global supply of a commodity) that the price can be manipulated.
Snack Co. has really cornered the fast food market. They have a branch in every town in the country!
When a company makes a product or provides a service that looks cheap or is poor quality, it is often because it does not use the best materials or does the absolute minimum that is required. We call this approach cutting corners; producing something with the lowest possible cost or effort, but at the expense of quality.
It’s well known that Toy Corp. cuts corners nowadays. In the past, their products had such a high-quality feel to them, but now they just look cheap.
A person who is calling the shots, is the person who is in charge and tells everybody else what to do. So, it will usually be the boss who calls the shots.
The directors call the shots and nothing happens without their consent.
Cutthroat is an adjective meaning completely ruthless in a situation in the world of business. People will do anything to win, without sympathy for others or compromises.
The competition between the 3 clothing stores in the shopping mall is absolutely cutthroat.
When you do something by the book, you follow all the rules and guidelines exactly. We can also say follow to the letter about instructions.
There was a queue and it took ages to reach the customer service desk. The clerk worked very slowly and did everything by the book. It was very frustrating!
This idiom is used in business but is also used in day-to-day life. It means the important or big subject that everybody knows about, but nobody wants to talk about. This is because the subject makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
A number of fashion chains are under scrutiny because there are rumours that their factories use illegal immigrants and treat the staff very badly. But when discussing their great business profits, these rumours are certainly the elephant in the room.
If a company has fallen on hard times, it is in financial difficulty (having previously been quite prosperous). This can also apply to people.
BlackBerry used to be a market leader in phones, but nowadays the company has really fallen on hard times. In the past, BlackBerry was just as successful as Apple is today. But the company failed to move with the times, and people stopped buying their products.
In business, to firefight means to deal with urgent problems quickly and not in a calm or planned way. So, firefighting normally happens when you are busy on routine activities and other problems suddenly emerge which have to be dealt with urgently.
We have so much going on at the moment that we can’t deal with everything properly. We’re just firefighting to keep our heads above water!
In freefall is a term used in business as an adjective to describe something that is falling very quickly. Things like a share price, values of assets, sales or customer numbers are sometimes said to be in freefall when they are going down very quickly.
An alternative to this adjective is to use a verb like plunge or plummet, which also mean to fall very fast.
The price of oil went into freefall at the beginning of the covid crisis when all the airlines stopped flying.
A game plan is a longer way of saying a plan. It tends to be used in the contexts of sport, politics and business. In reality, a game plan and a plan are exactly the same thing!
We increased our market share by sticking to the game plan that we created last year.
To get up to speed (or to bring someone up to speed) means to have all the available information so that you can do your work as effectively as possible.
I guess I should bring you up to speed on what’s happened since I came to see you yesterday.
I need to get up to speed on the latest developments before I write the research paper.
To get down to business is an expression that means to begin a task or to start to talk about a specific subject.
OK, everyone has arrived for our planning meeting. Let’s get down to business!
In business, when something goes through the roof, it is going up extremely quickly. This term is used about things like prices or sales. It is possible to use other verbs that mean the same thing. For instance, soar or shoot up.
When the new iPhone was released, there was so much demand that sales went through the roof.
If someone is described as having money to burn, then that person (or company) spends a lot of money on things that most people would think are not necessary. This expression is usually used with ‘must’.
Joe stayed in a luxury cabin for 28 nights on his world cruise, and when he got back, he bought a Ferrari. He must have money to burn!
To be in the loop means that you have all the relevant and up-to-date information about a particular topic. It’s often used in business when somebody has been away for a period and colleagues need to bring him/her up to date with all the new information.
Welcome back from your holiday Kevin. I’ve called this meeting to keep you in the loop on what happened last week, so you understand all the problems we’re facing.
When something is sold very cheaply, it can be described as a knockdown price. This usually happens when the seller needs money very quickly or when there is an oversupply of a product. Both of these situations will force the price down.
I’ve just bought a second-hand Mercedes. I got it for a knockdown price as the owner was desperate to sell and needed the money today.
To line your pockets is an expression that means to earn money dishonestly from the person or organisation that you work for. This is usually done by charging much more than the job is worth.
The normal rate they should have charged was 1%, but they actually charged 3%. For a number of years they lined their pockets and became very rich!
To live within your means, means to spend only what you earn, without borrowing any money. To live beyond your means, means to have a lifestyle that is more expensive than the money you are earning, so you have to borrow (or steal!) money in order to fund it.
He always has some money left at the end of the month and so lives within his means.
He was always seen in luxury cars, expensive restaurants and fancy clothes. He didn’t have a well-paid job, so he must have been living beyond his means.
To learn the ropes is an idiom that means to learn how to do a task or a job.
It took the new recruit a couple of months to learn the ropes at Snack Co.
To have a lot on your plate is an idiom that means you have many things to do and are very busy.
I’m sorry but I can’t help you move house this weekend as I’ve a lot on my plate at work this month.
Money for old rope is an idiom to describe money earned for little or no effort. It’s used either when there’s something surprising about a cost or when you want to complain about the cost of something.
The lawyer charged me £100 for a 30-minute consultation, and he didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know. That’s money for old rope!
A money-spinner is a product or service that proves to be very profitable and generates large amounts of cash. Every now and then, a business will have a product that is very successful and it will try to keep that product going for as long as possible. Synonyms include cash cow and golden goose.
In the 1990’s Pierre Omidyar launched a website called Auctionweb. It was very profitable and became a real money-spinner. Soon it changed its name to Ebay!
If you are on the same page as someone, it means that you are in complete agreement with that person. It can also mean that your approach to solving a problem or completing a task is exactly the same.
That’s great! We are all on the same page on this matter. I’m glad we all agree.
If you decide to delay doing something (because you are too busy or you think it’s not important), then you have put it on the back burner. You don’t see it as a priority, but you will still think about doing it in the future. You can also say defer, delay, and shelve.
The directors have decided to put the Alpha Project on the backburner, and come back to it in six months’ time.
To pull the plug means that a company has decided to stop putting money into a business or project, with the result that it will cease operation.
Management have decided that the loss-making operation in Scotland cannot continue in business. They are pulling the plug on it, and it will close in six weeks’ time.
To pay through the nose is an idiom that means to pay too much (overpay) for a product or service. The person paying is being taken advantage of by the supplier of the product.
When our Chinese supplier failed to deliver on time, we had to pay through the nose for spare parts from domestic providers!
Red tape is an idiom that refers to having lots of rules and regulations, which must be followed. When these rules and regulations are from an official or government department, the word used is bureaucracy.
Our organisation can help you to navigate all the red tape in obtaining a business visa to visit the UK.
A rule of thumb is an idiom used to describe a general guideline or rule that can be easily learned to apply to a particular situation. A rule of thumb is short, easy to understand and will enable someone to apply an easy solution.
When you are working in the financial sector, as a rule of thumb, you should always stay up-to-date on the current market situation.
To stump up means to pay for or find the money for something. It’s informal and is used particularly when the person doesn’t really want to pay.
My boss is tight with money. I’m not sure how to tell him he’ll need to stump up nearly £5,000 for new office furniture!
If a company is staying afloat, this means that it just about has enough money to keep trading. So, staying afloat is a primary objective when companies start experiencing financial difficulties.
Things are not looking good. Sales are down and our overheads are going up. We need to concentrate on staying afloat!
When we want to buy something and it’s expensive, we can use to splash out. It’s for when we want something and we don’t mind how much it’s going to cost. This can be described as an extravagant purchase.
Snack Co. has just splashed out on a luxury office building in downtown New York.
To teeter on the brink of something is an idiom meaning to be very close to something happening, which is usually big and bad. To teeter is a very unusual verb, and you normally only see it used with the words ‘on the brink of’ or ‘on the edge of’.
Before it went into liquidation, Zamora PLC had been teetering on the brink of (the edge of) insolvency for a couple of years.
To tide over means to help somebody through a difficult period, especially with financial assistance. Note that this is a set expression and there is NO verb ‘to tide’.
Winter clothing company Murray PLC has just borrowed an extra £2m from the bank in order to tide it over during the summer months.
To take your eye off the ball means to not pay attention to the most important thing. In business, this is often used about companies that close because they have not kept up with the market.
To keep your eye on the ball means exactly the opposite – to keep paying attention to the most important thing. In business, it is used to describe companies that are consistently successful because they change and adapt with the market.
Kodak took its eye off the ball in the 1990’s. This resulted in one of the biggest companies in the world going bankrupt!
To touch base means to make contact with somebody to get an update on a situation. This is very brief contact just to get a quick piece of information or perhaps to say hello after a period of no contact.
I’ve not seen my client Zamora PLC for several months and I’d like to know how their business is going. I’m going to visit them today just to touch base.
To weather the storm means to survive a very difficult and potentially destructive situation with as little damage as possible. This expression is used in business quite a lot.
People buy newspapers less nowadays because there is so much news on the internet. The Times newspaper has weathered the storm by setting up its own radio station and online news service.
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Follow the story about Murray PLC in the following sentences and fill in the gaps with the most suitable idiom.
Match parts 1-5 with a-e to make complete sentences.
Choose the correct synonym a-c for each idiom below.