Top 15 English Idioms in Business

I’m going to teach you 15 need-to-know business idioms and how to use them.

We’ll help you not only understand what these idioms mean, but how to use them in the right business context and with the right tone. Again, the focus will be on idioms common in the business world, but many of these can carry over into general English conversation and other domains as well.

You will hear an excerpt of a real-life English conversation in a business meeting. We’ll then explain these idioms with an interactive quiz.

Before we jump to the sample conversation, just a note for those of you who may be discouraged by studying idioms. Now, you’ve probably noticed that English speakers use idioms in almost every conversation – in fact, it’s rare to hear a conversation in which idioms aren’t used, regardless of how formal or informal the setting or register of speech happens to be. So naturally, this reality put the pressure on to study idioms!

To be honest, though, it’s not super important that you learn to use a lot of idioms in your English speaking – adding a few that you’re comfortable with every now and then can add color and naturalness to your speech, but they are not essential to communication.

In fact, trying to study endless lists of these expressions can 1. Be overwhelming and 2. distract you from more important aspects of mastering English. Plus, idioms come in and out of common use and are sometimes regional, meaning they are used in certain parts of the English-speaking world. So what’s an English student to do?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t study idioms. While it’s not essential that you use them in your speech, it is often really important that you understand those you hear. So the best approach? Focus on idioms that are 1. High-frequency 2. In common use today and 3. Learned in context so that you can best understand their tone and use.

Best way to study idioms that meet these criteria? Subscribe to our channel and keep watching – this is the criteria we’ll follow in any and all idioms videos. Of course, to reinforce what you learn from your Magoosh lessons, it’s great to try to use the idioms you’ve learned as soon as possible and actively listen for them in your favorite English podcasts, sitcoms and movies, provided these are set in the modern-day, and representative of how people actually speak now.

Sadly for some of you, this means rewatching all of those GOT episodes as an excuse to study idiomatic English isn’t really helpful. Same goes for historical period dramas and a lot of the fantasy genre.

So that being said, before we lose any more GOT fans, let’s not waste any more time and get to the dialogue in which you’ll be listening for 15 different idioms. Try with just the audio first to see how many idioms you can pick out just by listening. Then stay tuned for the second round in which we’ll give you a transcription of what you heard. Ready? Here we go.

Dialogue:

A: So you wanted to discuss our game plan for dealing with our new competitor, am I right?

S: Yes. In a nutshell, if we want to stay ahead of the pack, we’ll have to increase our marketing budget.

A: Until now, we’ve cornered the market on this product. Are you sure we’re up against real competition here?

S: We can count on competition becoming more cut-throat with this new player in the market. Our numbers are still good but we don’t want to lose sight of the big picture and count potential opportunities or competitors out.

A: I suppose you’re right. So do we have a ballpark figure for that increased budget yet?

S: To get the new marketing campaign off the ground we’ll need to invest another 30k at least.

A: Alright, then if the team is on the same page, let’s get the ball rolling on this. You’re in the driver’s seat on this, so we’re counting on you to hit this out of the park.

S: You can count on me!

So how did you do with that first listen? Let us know what percent of the conversation you think you understood by clicking that little i in the top left corner and opening the quick survey there. We’d love to see how you did.

So ready for the breakdown? Let’s go back to the first sentence.

Quiz

Choose the correct answer please (correct answers to be found in the paragraph below each question)

A: So you wanted to discuss our game plan for dealing with our new competitor, am I right?

Game plan

  1. plan to fool someone
  2. plan a game night
  3. strategy for success

Which answer do you think best defines game plan, A, B or C? Before we show you the answer, take a guess by opening that quiz in the right corner and show us what you’ve got. Ready to check? The answer is C: a game plan is a plan or strategy for success. Obviously, you would use this idiom a lot in business, but we can use it socially too. For example, if you’re meeting up with friends for an evening, you could ask “what’s the game plan for tonight?” as in, what’s our plan to make this a fun evening.

S. Yes. In a nutshell, if we want to stay ahead of the pack, we’ll have to increase our marketing budget.

Now we’re not going to go into too much detail on “stay ahead of the pack” since this idiom really explains itself, stay ahead of everyone else.

In a nutshell

  1. In other words
  2. Despite the odds
  3. To put it briefly

But what does “in a nutshell” mean? Go ahead and make your choice in the top right corner. Ready? If you think of an almond, peanut, walnut in its shell, it’s really a compact little package of protein, isn’t it? This idiom means C. to put it briefly. When you summarize something using the fewest words possible, then you’re packaging that information in a nutshell. This is most often used at the very beginning or very end of your sentence and is really useful for presentations if you want to summarize your contents in the introduction or in conclusion. If you don’t want to go into detailed response, this is also a nice way to respond to a question. For example, if someone asks how your vacation was, you could say: “ In a nutshell, it was a nightmare. I’ll tell you about it over lunch.”

A. Until now, we’ve cornered the market on this product. Are you sure we’re up against real competition here?

We’ve got two idioms making an appearance in this phrase. Let’s start with corner the market.

Corner the market

  1. Find a niche market
  2. Have the greatest market share in the industry
  3. Manage to save money by ignoring the rules

Make your guess. If you said B, you are correct! To corner the market means to be the industry leader, having the greatest share in the industry.

With this statement, the speaker sounds quite confident of her company’s strength in the industry and her next question reveals some skepticism…

Be up against something/someone

  1. In opposition to/facing
  2. Be close to or in contact with
  3. Experiencing serious damage

…there’s a little hint for you as you make your choice for be up against something or someone. (pause) So the speaker here finds it hard to believe that their position as industry leader is threatened or opposed by a threat – if you chose A, in opposition to, you’re correct. Now, if you chose B, you’re not wrong, since you can physically be up against a background or wall, meaning you are close to or in contact with it. That’s not the meaning in this context, but it is another meaning.

S: We can count on competition becoming more cut-throat with this new player in the market. Our numbers are still good but we don’t want to lose sight of the big picture and count potential opportunities or competitors out.

So here we have a total of four idioms used.

Count on

  1. Depend on
  2. Expect
  3. Calculate

Let’s start with the idiom that makes an appearance several times in this short conversation, COUNT ON. Take a second to make your guess. (pause) Did you chose C? If so, you’re wrong. As for A and B, though, they are both definitions of count on. If we count on someone we depend on them, or trust them to get something done. If we count on something happening, we expect it will happen with a lot of certainty. Which definition works in this context? Yes, it’s B. We expect competition to become more cut-throat. We’ll see the definition of A come a little later.

Cut-throat

  1. Have a greater say
  2. Intensely competitive and ruthless
  3. Force into bankruptcy

So that brings us to cut-throat. A very violent sounding idiom, no? What’s your guess?

Did you choose B, intensely competitive and ruthless? If so, good for you. Ruthless means having no compassion or pity, as is probably true of someone cutting their enemy’s throat. No need for visuals there, so we’ll move on to the next idiom

Big picture

  1. The more important details
  2. The biggest threat
  3. The situation as a whole

The speaker agrees that the details about numbers are important, but is worried that some big factors might be overlooked. It’s important to look at C, the situation as a whole. When we use this idiom we often use it in these phrases: “look at the big picture; consider the big picture;” or the opposite of this: “lose sight of the big picture.”

Count something/someone out

  1. Not take into account
  2. Count one-by-one
  3. Not include in a plan or activity

Now when you’re looking at the big picture, you can’t count out the major features. What definition of count out would you choose, A, B or C? Ready to check your answer? If you chose any of these as definitions for count out, you were correct since they work in different contexts. Which one works best for this sentence? A. The speaker is concerned about not taking into account or not considering potential competitors or opportunities. If you want to exclude yourself from an activity, say your friends are planning to attend a party but you have something else to do, you can say: “Count me out this time” meaning C, don’t include me in your plans. As for B, if you’re lucky enough to have so much cash you have to count out the bills one by one, I’d be happy to help you out for a cut.

That brings us to our next sentence from the conversation:

A: I suppose you’re right. So do we have a ballpark figure for that increased budget yet?

Ballpark figure

  1. A rough estimate
  2. The exact statistics
  3. The highest possible cost

Here’s the first of three idioms in our conversation that refer to balls. In this case, baseball. Here’s a hint before you make your choice of definition. Think of the crowd at a baseball stadium. If you know the capacity, you probably have an idea of how many people are actually there. Made your choice? Here A is the correct answer, a rough estimate. We use ballpark for an acceptable rough estimate of total cost or budget before exact calculations are made. Some examples: Give me a ballpark figure for our expenses last quarter. What’s the ballpark figure for net losses on this property?

S: To get the new marketing campaign off the ground we’ll need to invest another 30k at least.

Get something off the ground

  1. Recover a failed mission
  2. Stop being lazy
  3. Get started successfully

Her our idiom is GET sth OFF THE GROUND. Take a guess about the meaning in the top right corner – what does the speaker want to do with this campaign exactly?

Get something off the ground is to get started successfully with a successful first phase accomplished. It’s typically used for larger scale projects that require a lot of planning and organization. We’ll revisit this idiom in a moment to compare and contrast it with an idiom in the concluding sentences.

A: Alright, then if the team is on the same page, let’s get the ball rolling on this. You’re in the driver’s seat on this, so we’re counting on you to hit this out of the park.

S: You can count on me!

A whopping six idioms in this exchange. Now we’ve already talked about COUNT ON, this time in both cases meaning depend on. The team is depending on Sam, and Sam assures her that they can depend on him – he’s a dependable guy. As for BE ON THE SAME PAGE, this is pretty intuitive, and you have probably guessed this means to be in agreement, see things the same way. We can use this for business of course, proposals, negotiations. But we can also extend it to relationships – our closest friends and family are often on the same page, be that in world view, future plans, values system, etc.

Get the ball rolling

  1. Get started
  2. Crush the competition
  3. Make a huge profit

Now for GET THE BALL ROLLING- another quiz for you in the right corner. What does the speaker want to do in this context? While she probably wants to both crush the competition and make a huge profit, the answer is A. She simply wants to get started on the campaign. Now this is similar to GET SOMETHING OFF THE GROUND, but more general. Get sth off the ground is to get started with a successful first phase accomplished while get the ball rolling simply means get started. For example, if you get the ball rolling on a new project, you may get if off the ground after a few months of work, perhaps through a successful soft launch.

BE IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT is quite self-explanatory as well, so we’ll skip the quiz for this one. Clearly, if you’re in the driver’s seat, you are in control, and you’re in charge. You no doubt have input from passengers, but ultimately you are in charge.

Hit it out of the (ball)park

  1. Make a lot of profit
  2. Be very successful
  3. Remove the problem

Which brings us to our final idiom, the last of the ball idioms. To hit it out of the park or ballpark probably brings an image immediately to mind. Make your choice at the top right of your screen before we check this together. Ready?

To hit a ball out of the park is a homerun in baseball, and a cause for the team to celebrate this success. So if you chose B, you’re correct. The team is depending on Sam to make a success of this campaign in this case. This is another idiom commonly used in business, and in many other domains as well. If you give a successful presentation, organized a successful event, or won a debate, you’ve hit it out of the park. This idiom typically applies to major events and successes.. you probably wouldn’t hear it used after winning a video game or successfully making a cake.

So there we have our 15 idioms explained. How did you do on the quizzes? How about we do a quick review? To do this we’re going to give you the same dialogue, but this time with same content spoken very literally. As you listen, think of which idiom you can use to replace the words in bold.

Literal version for comparison

A: So you wanted to discuss our strategy for successfully dealing with our new competitor, am I right?

S: Yes. To put it briefly if we want to remain industry leaders, we’ll have to increase our marketing budget.

A: Until now, we’ve had the greatest market share in this product. Are you sure we’re facing real competition here?

S: We can expect competition to become more intensely competitive with this new player in the market. Our numbers are still good but we don’t want to lose sight of the situation as a whole and not take potential opportunities or competitors into account.

A: I suppose you’re right. So do we have a rough estimate for that increased budget yet?

S: To get the new marketing campaign started successfully we’ll need to invest another 30k at least.

A: Alright, then if we’re all in agreement let’s get started. You’re in charge of this, so we’re depending on you to be successful.

S: You can depend on me!

Did you remember them all? Listen to the original dialogue and check your answers as the screen reveals the matching idiom for each term in bold.

Let us know how you did in the comments section and if you can think of other idioms that share the same meaning as the ones we use

Magoosh Team

Magoosh Team

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