20 Business English Idioms, Lesson 1

Business English idioms are fixed phrases (collocations) used to communicate something in a nonliteral way. Idiomatic phrases are often visual, sometimes funny, and usually create little “word pictures” in the mind of the listener. English idioms are challenging for those who speak English as a second language because the words cannot be translated literally.

English idioms are the delicious little phrases that “pack a punch” (= have a lot of power) and give you “a lot of bang for your buck” (= value for your investment of money or effort). Idioms are meaning-dense messages that natives love and non-native speakers can only guess about. If you often feel confused when listening to native speakers, one reason is the common presence of idioms. But don’t worry! This alphabetized (ABC) list of 20 idioms will give you a place to begin learning these fun and powerful elements of business English communication.

1. Angel investor
No, this is not about religion. An angel investor is a person or company who provides financial backing for small start-ups or entrepreneurs.
Example: Mr. Jones pitched his new business to lots of angel investors. Finally, one them decided to invest.

2. At arm’s length 
A social distance that discourages personal contact or familiarity.
Example: I am not too friendly at work. I like to keep my colleagues at arm’s length.

3. Bad egg
An untrustworthy person.
Example: The new sales person was a bad egg who lied to customers and mistreated his colleagues.

4. Bang for the buck
Value for money; performance for cost.
Example: My cable company gives customers a good bang for the buck with bundled prices for TV, high speed internet, streaming entertainment and phone services.

5. Belt and suspenders
Being very careful. Minimizing risk and having multiple ways to prevent failure.
Example: I saved the report to Drive and emailed it to myself. You know, belt and suspenders!

6. Business before pleasure
You should do your work before you have fun
Example: Yes I know that the party starts soon, but I have to finish this report; you know how it is, business before pleasure!

7. Belt tightening
To generally reduce expenses, investment and spending.
Example: If demand for oil decreases, then I guess oil companies will just have to tighten their belts.

8. Big wig
An important person with high status.
Example: Don’t even try to get an appointment with her. She’s quite a big wig now.

9. Bitter pill to swallow
Bad news; something unpleasant that must be accepted.
Example: Getting fired after having worked so hard was a bitter pill to swallow.

10. Blank check
Complete freedom of action or control.
Example: The millionaire CEO funded the product research with a blank check. There was no ceiling on the budget!

Congratulations. You are halfway there!

Let’s learn ten more business English idioms…

11. Bounce back
To return to a good condition; to recover from a blow or defeat.
Example: The restaurant business will hopefully bounce back in the new year.

12. Breadwinner
The person whose income is the primary source of support for their family.
Example: Maria was the main breadwinner in her family. She took a job she didn’t like because it paid very well.

13. Caught red-handed / caught in the act
Seen / observed doing something illegal or immoral; “caught in the act.”
Example: The manager was caught red-handed stealing from petty cash.

14. Can’t quite put my fingers on it
Something that one feels or knows intuitively but cannot quite articulate, explain or defend.
Example: I have the feeling that there’s something wrong with the new guy in accounting. I think he’s a little shady, but I’m not sure why. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

15. Come to think of it
To suddenly remember something; to suddenly understand something. To make a mental connection or have a sudden insight about.
Example: Come to think of it, he used to work for the competition. Could he be a corporate spy?

16. Compare apples and oranges
Comparing two things that are not suitable for comparison.
Example: You can’t compare our little startup with a multinational company. That’s comparing apples and oranges.

17. Climb the corporate ladder
Moving up to a higher position in a corporation.
Example: Although Leslie just graduated from college a few years ago, she has already climbed several rungs on the corporate ladder.

18. Corporate raider
A financier who makes a practice of making hostile takeover bids for companies, either to control their policies or to resell them for a profit.
Example: Our company stock was undervalued and that’s what attracted some corporate raiders.

19. Cost a pretty penny
To be very expensive; to cost a lot of money.
Example: The addition of the onsite health club, child care center and parking garage cost the company a pretty penny.

20. Crunch some numbers
To calculate various figures.
Example: The management said they had to crunch some more numbers before deciding about employee raises this year.

OK… that’s it for this list. We hope you enjoy using these business English idioms. And if you would like to further develop your business English, we have some suggestions for you. Please keep reading and take the free test.

Do you want to learn more business English idioms?

No problem. We’ve got you covered with 4 free idiom lessons. You are currently in Chapter 1 of our Business English Idiom Series

Go to Chapter 2 of our Business English Idiom Series

Go to Chapter 3 of our Business English Idiom Series

Go to Chapter 4 of our Business English Idiom Series

Try our FREE business English idiom test now

Take our free business English idiom test online now and discover how well you understand the expressions (=uitdrukkingen) used in everyday professional English.

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Contributors: Brenda de Jong-Pauley, Kerry Finlayson and Marike Duizendstra-Wolters
August 2021

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