10 Common Business English Idioms you can start using today!

In this article you are going to learn 10 common business English idioms so that you can start sounding more like a native English speaker, impress your international colleagues or customers and better understand the type of English that is spoken in international offices around the world.

Business English newspaper

When you are learning English, you have to remember that what English speakers say isn’t always exactly what they mean. English is a very ‘non-literal’ language and when native speakers speak English they use a lot of idioms and idiomatic phrases.

*Idioms are phrases that don’t have a clear meaning or that cannot be translated literally.

There are lots of common English idioms that native speakers use everyday in conversation and there are also a lot of common business English idioms that people use in more formal ‘business English’. Nearly all global businesses in all industries use English as the common language of communication, so if you want to excel in your career it’s important to start learning these common non-literal phrases and idioms.

Let’s look at some of the most important ones…..

1. Get down to business

‘To get down to business’ means to stop procrastinating and get started on the work that needs to be done.

Example sentences

  • “We’ve had a very productive week planning the new sales targets, but now it’s time to get down to business.” said the boss.
  • It’s getting late. We better get down to business or we’ll never get to leave the office!

2. Back to the drawing board

If you go ‘back to the drawing board’, you start something again – from the beginning.

Example sentences

  • My boss didn’t like my proposal so he rejected it and told me to go back to the drawing board!
  • This advertising campaign was totally unsuccessful. We need to go back to the drawing board for the next advertising campaign.

3. Rule of thumb

A ‘rule of thumb’ is a general practice or usual way of doing things.

Example sentences

  • As a rule of thumb, you should hand in your timesheets before 9pm on Friday if you want to be paid on time.
  • The company doesn’t allow employees to take unpaid leave as a rule of thumb, but they make exceptions in some special situations.

4. Put something on the back burner

If you ‘put something on the back burner’, you (temporarily) stop working on it. You suspend work on it. You may or may not need to start working on it again in the future.

Example sentences

  • Our boss doesn’t love this idea. Perhaps we should put it on the back burner for now and come up with something else. We can always come back to it later if he changes his mind.
  • I’ve had to put the marketing research on the back burner. An urgent request came in and it’s due tomorrow.

using Business English in work

5. By the book

To do something ‘by the book’  or to ‘go by the book’ means to follow the rules.

Example sentences

  • This is a very tricky situation. We’d better go by the book on this one so that we don’t get into trouble.
  • The company didn’t do things by the book, so they ended up with legal problems.
  • Sometimes it’s better to think of new ways to do something instead of always going by the book.

6. Learn the ropes

To learn the ropes’ means to learn how to do basic tasks in a company. It is often used when a person starts a new job and needs to learn the ropes, like learn how to use a new computer system and new office processes.

Example sentences

  • It might take me a week or two to learn the ropes, but I am sure I will fit in well here.
  • The new employee took too long to learn the ropes and was fired.

Note: a similar common business english idiom is ‘to show someone the ropes’ – which means to teach someone the basic things or the way things are done.

7. Touch base

‘To touch base’ means to communicate with someone to get an update on something.

Example sentences

  • We should touch base in a week to talk about how the project is going.
  • My boss wants to touch base with me about the staff Christmas party.
  • Could you please touch base with the manufacturer to find out how long it will be until the products are ready?

8. Get the ball rolling

‘To get the ball rolling’ means to start something – to make the first step to start an activity.

Note: people may also say “set the ball rolling” or “start the ball rolling”

Example sentences

  • “Alright, it’s time to get the ball rolling on this project. Does anyone have any ideas?”
  • We should have started the ball rolling days ago!
  • My boss asked me to get ball rolling on creating a new company website.

9. In a nutshell

  • ‘In a nutshell’ means in a clear summary of something, in a brief few words.
  • To tell somebody about something “in a nutshell” means to give them a short, clear summary of the issue in a few words.

Example sentences

  • My boss asked me to tell him, it in a nutshell, how the client meeting went.
  • In a nutshell, the issue is that we need more time to complete the project.

10. at the eleventh hour

To do something ‘at the eleventh hour’ means to do it at the latest possible time.

Example sentences

  • The company found finance for the purchase at the eleventh hour.
  • The bright, new employee realized that there was a solution to the problem at the eleventh hour.
  • The business deal was agreed at the eleventh hour, just days before the company filed for bankruptcy.

In a nutshell, these 10 common business English idioms are essential to know and will be very beneficial for you if you work in English or if you want to use English for your job in the future.  If you master these idioms, you’ll be on your way to understanding a lot more of the business English language that is used in offices and meeting rooms around the world.