My 18 Favorite Business English Idioms and Expressions
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
Before I started teaching English, I never thought about how common idioms and expressions are in the English language.
But then one day a student asked me what a particular idiom meant and the first thing I could think of was another idiom! That was the moment when I realized just how common these things are in the English language.
Since then I’ve spent a lot of time considering the different idioms and expressions that we use in our daily lives.
Which are the most common?
When do we say this or that expression?
I’ve heard these questions a lot.
The answer is, like most things in life, it depends!
Like any language, each native English speaker has his own style that, at least partially, is uniquely his. Business English is no different.
Today I’m going to share with you my favorite 18 business English idioms and expressions and why I love these 18 so much!
I have ranked them from 18 to 1. Since this is my personal ranking, it considers both the frequency with which I use the idiom/expression, as well as how much I like that particular expression.
18. “Back against the wall”
To have your “back against the wall” means to be in a difficult situation that is going to require skill and effort to overcome. It is very common and used in every situation imaginable including business. I like it because it is motivational and descriptive.
Example: “Tim seems to perform best when he has his back against the wall.”
It can be plural too:
Example: “Now that we’ve got our backs against the wall, we’ll need to be very focused for the rest of the year.”
17. “Turn a profit”
Very straightforward and effective. To “turn a profit” simply means to make a profit. It might be a bit overused but it sounds so much better than constantly using “make a profit” when you want to say “make a profit”. You get the idea!
Example: “XYZ Company has lost money for three straight years. Do you think they’ll ever turn a profit?”
16. “Cut corners”
This is a common idiom in business and daily life. It means to find a quicker, easier, cheaper (etc.), way to do something. It can have a neutral to slightly positive meaning in context, but it usually tends to have a negative connotation.
Example: “If you cut corners it might save time now, but it could eventually cost you money if the poor quality of work delays the project.”
15. “Play hardball”
I have a special liking for baseball-related idioms and expressions. It was my favorite sport growing up so I like the descriptive imagery that it provides.
To play hardball means to be intensely focused on achieving one’s goal. It means to be prepared for fierce competition, negotiation, etc.
Example: “I thought the competition would be friendly, but based on their latest advertising campaign, it looks like they want to play hardball.”
14. “Get a/your foot in the door”
This idiom is commonly used in the context of trying to get a job in a particular company or close a sale with a potential client. It simply means that you’re looking for some opportunity, any opportunity to begin working with/at that company. It implies that once you “get a foot in the door”, you plan to pursue even better opportunities with that company.
Example: “I know this position doesn’t pay very well but once I get my foot in the door, I’m confident that I will get promoted to management within five years.”
13. “Hands are tied”
I love this idiom because it provides great mental imagery to deliver the message. If your “hands are tied” it means that something is out of your control. Depending on context it can be used to either express regret that you can’t do more, or annoyance that somebody is asking you to do something.
Example 1: “I’d like to purchase another server this year Carl but we don’t have the budget. My hands are tied.”
Example 2: “It doesn’t matter if you decrease the price or not because I have reached the regulatory limit for the amount of shares that I can hold. My hands are tied.”
12. “Take the bull by the horns”
Again, I like this idiom because it is very descriptive. Imagine trying to control a wild bull. You can’t just walk up to the bull and politely say, “Excuse me Mr. Wild Bull…”. If you want to tame the bull you’ll have to wrestle with it and get a little dirty.
So to “take the bull by the horns” simply means to take control of a situation or to do what is necessary to get the job done.
Example: “Lisa was a great student. She really took the bull by the horns and made her education a priority.”
11. “Cut your losses”
As it sounds, to cut your losses means to stop your losses before you lose more. I use this expression a lot because it applies very well to business.
Often times we allow the amount of time or money we’ve invested in something (“sunk cost” in accounting terminology) to influence our next decision. This idiom tells us to fight such a temptation and focus only on the current decision.
Example: “Cut your losses Mike. Even if you invest $20mn more in that project, the probability of success is less than 10%.”
10. “Let sleeping dogs lie”
This can be a great idiom to use in the context of competition. It means to be happy with what you have because if you’re not and accidentally get too aggressive then it could have harmful consequences that you did not intend.
Example: “Why would you change your product offering to compete directly with the market leader when you already occupy a comfortable niche? Let sleeping dogs lie!”
9. “Spin your wheels”
Another idiom that is quite common in business. Like most of my favorites, I like it because it is very descriptive.
Think of trying to drive a car through mud or maybe some ice in the winter. Regardless of how much you push the gas pedal, your wheels are spinning but you don’t move. Now think of a time when you tried to think of an idea but your mind was completely blank. You thought and thought for hours but couldn’t think of anything. You were spinning your wheels!
Example: “I spent the entire afternoon spinning my wheels trying to think of what to write in this letter to my boss.”
8. “(Only) time will tell”
This is a very common idiom in business and daily life. It means that we cannot predict the future so we shouldn’t even try. I like it because it reminds us to stay focused on the current moment.
Example: “Our new product looks great. It should be very profitable, but only time will tell.”
7. “Leave well enough alone”
I love this expression and although there aren’t that many opportunities to use it, I do whenever I can. To “leave well enough alone” simply means to be happy with what you have and move on to something else.
We often try to solve problems by doing more but sometimes the best solution is to do less or nothing.
Example: “I’ve been editing the marketing presentation all morning but I think I might have actually made it worse. I should probably just leave well enough alone and go to lunch now.”
6. “Move the goalposts”
If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of very common sports idioms in English-speaking world. Move the goalposts is another favorite of mine.
Think of football (American or international) or other sports that have a goal with metal posts that form some sort of square or rectangle. While playing that sport you get points if you put some object between those goalposts. The goal may be protected by a goalkeeper but they don’t move.
Now think if those goalposts were constantly moving and you had no idea how to actually score. This is what it means to “move the goalposts”. To change the rules after something (a negotiation, a contract, etc.) has already begun. I like it because it is very clear and not overused like so many other idioms and expressions.
Example: “I thought we had a deal but every time we get close they move the goalposts.”
5. “Sky’s the limit”
A very common expression that can, and is, used in many different situations to express the enormous potential of any idea, deal or other activity.
Tony: “This contract could be huge. How much are we talking annually?”
Marian: “200, 300 thousand? I’m not sure. Sky’s the limit!”
4. “Ballpark” / “In the ballpark”
Professional baseball games are played in a ballpark, which is usually quite large. So in business we often use the term “ballpark” to mean an estimate or guess.
“In the ballpark” means close to the actual number. Simply saying “ballpark” to somebody in context, means that you would like an estimate. I love this idiom because it is both very efficient and it is about baseball. Two things that I love!
Larry: “So how much did the new factory cost Nancy?”
Nancy: “I can’t tell you because it’s private information.”
Larry: “Thirty-five million?”
Nancy: “I can’t tell you.”
Larry: “Am I in the ballpark?”
Nancy: “I can’t tell you Larry.”
Eric: “How much could we lose on this deal Nick?”
Nick: “I’m not sure.”
Nick: “Probably around $11,000.”
3. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”
This is a great expression because it can be applied to everything in life, including business. It means that you can’t make progress or expect to achieve anything of value if you don’t put in the effort and take some risk. It might not be as common as the rest of my top five but it is still quite common.
Example: “I’m a little bit nervous because I haven’t spoken English in a while but today I signed up for a business English training. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?”
2. “Six of one, (and) a half dozen of the other”
Like the rest of my top five, I love this idiom because it can summarize several different thoughts in a few words. It means that you are indifferent between two options and/or you don’t care to waste time choosing one or the other because the difference isn’t significant. If we choose option A, we’ll have six. If we choose option B, we’ll have a half dozen, which is also six!
Depending on the context, this idiom can have a slightly sarcastic meaning or imply to the other person that they are bothering you by asking since the two options are the same or similar enough that you don’t care.
Clyde: “Do you think we should schedule the sales conference for February or April this year?”
Phil: “I don’t know. Six of one, a half dozen of the other.”
1. “It is what it is”
My favorite expression is very common in business and daily life. In fact, it might be overused by others and it’s definitely overused by me. That said, I love it because it is so flexible and efficient. It just feels right when I say it!
“It is what it is” is an expression that can capture several of the above and many other idioms/expressions with just five words. It means, there’s nothing you can do about it. Or stop worrying. Or do something else. Or leave me alone!
Sam: “Tomorrow I have a meeting with the auditors at 7am, a sales negotiation, conference call about the new international trade regulation and a lunch meeting with a client at 1. And I’m supposed to be at the airport to leave for London by 4.”
Tina: “It is what it is.”
About the Author
Jason Gower is the creator and instructor of Expand Life Business English courses. He has more than fifteen years of business experience and has learned both German and Spanish to a C2 level. Click to learn more about Expand Life Business English courses.