Common Business Idioms and Phrases

English involves hundreds and thousands of idioms and expressions, some more commonly used than others. If you are from abroad and working in the US for the first time, you may hear hundreds of different idioms that you never learned in school. We will go through 75 common business idioms, and this is the first part sorted by category so you can master the American workplace jargon.

State of Progress

The following business idioms are related to the progress of work or a project.

1. Bring someone up to speed

Related: Fill someone in, on the same page, out of the loop, touch base

To “bring someone up to speed” means to provide information on a subject or project so that the individual can have the most recent information on it. For example, suppose you are working on a project and your boss asks you to bring her up to speed. You would proceed to update your boss on the progress of the project.

Similarly, to “fill someone in” means to give that person information that they missed or do not have. You filled your boss in on the latest updates on the project you are working on in the example above. You and your boss are now “on the same page,” which means you both have the same information on the subject matter.

The phrase “in the loop” also holds the same meaning as “on the same page.” If you and the other coworkers working on the current project are all up-to-date on its progress, then you are all in the loop. Your boss, who you recently updated, is also now in the loop.

To “touch base” means updating someone about a certain matter. For example, you could touch base with your boss every two weeks which means you are updating each other every two weeks. The phrase “touch base” is from baseball; you would touch all bases before scoring. Likewise, you would check in with your boss multiple times before completing your project or task.

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2. To be (kept) in the dark

Related: Out of the loop

The opposite of bringing someone up to speed, “to be in the dark” means that an individual does not know the full information on the subject matter. You and your coworkers can be kept in the dark regarding an upcoming company policy. Whether intentional or unintentional, the company is not giving you and your coworkers information about the policy.

As the exact opposite of “in the loop,” “out of the loop” means an individual is not updated on the latest information on a subject matter. Your boss would be “out of the loop” if you did not update her regularly.

3. From the ground up

Related: From scratch

To build something “from the ground up” means creating something from the very beginning. An alternative expression would be starting “from scratch” which means you are starting from nothing to build something. For example, you could be coding a new program from start to finish without using another existing program as its base. “Scratch” was used in sports to mark the starting line of a race, so “from scratch” literally means from the starting line.

4. Back to square one

Related: Back to the drawing board

The idiom “back to square one” means returning to the starting point. For instance, your team might have worked on a project that did not reach its goals. You may then have to go back to square one to come up with different project ideas that can successfully reach that goal.

Back to the drawing board” also holds a similar meaning. A drawing board is a board on which you would jot down ideas, so when you go back to the drawing board, you are going back to the beginning and coming up with new ideas.

5. Up in the air

Related: Put a pin in that

Up in the air” is used when a plan or idea is not yet decided on or resolved. A project idea that has not yet been approved by higher-ups is up in the air because it is not decided whether the company will go through with the project or not.

In a similar vein, the phrase “put a pin in that” or “stick a pin in that” means to hold on to an idea so the team can come back to it later. Suppose you voice up an idea in a meeting that is not applicable at the current moment but may be practical in the future. Your manager may say, “Let’s put a pin in that” bookmarking the idea for another time. When bulletin boards were more widely used, people used to put pins on small pieces of paper that contained ideas or notes at meetings.

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6. In the pipeline

Related: In the works, on the back burner

In the pipeline” means an idea or project is not finished or executed yet. Your company could have multiple incomplete projects in the pipeline that a team started but never got around to finishing. These projects may be in the pipeline for several weeks to even multiple years. In terms of progress, they may be in their beginning stage or completed but never executed.

In the works” is a similar idiom which means the project is currently being planned or developed. Unlike “in the pipeline,” “in the works” means the project is not on hold but being actively worked on at the moment.

When you put an idea or project “on the back burner,” it means it is going on hold. This typically happens when the idea or project is not of high priority at the moment.

7. Get the ball rolling

Related: Get something off the ground, on the right track, take off

To “get the ball rolling” means starting the progress of an idea or project. If you are a marketer promoting a new product, you can get the ball rolling by planning the first online advertising campaign for the product.

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The phrase “get something off the ground” also means getting something started. By planning and initiating the first online ad campaign, you got the project off the ground.

Meanwhile, the idiom “on the right track” means you are on the correct path toward a goal. Your superior at work might compliment you for being on the right track for starting an online ad campaign.

When a project “takes off,” it is executed or put into action. The marketing project took off when you initiated the first ad campaign.

8. In full swing

Related: Smooth sailing, uphill battle

When a project is in “full swing,” it means it is operating at the peak of its activity. Your marketing project would be in full swing when it is generating a significant amount of sales and profit.

Smooth sailing” is used to describe a project or work that is going well without the presence of any obstacles. For example, your marketing project may have faced some initial difficulties but went well afterward. You could say, “It was smooth sailing after those initial problems.”

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The very opposite of “smooth sailing,” an “uphill battle” is when the process involves many difficulties. You could say that the initial phase of your marketing project was an uphill battle because you struggled with many issues.

9. Get down to business

Related: Get cranking

The idiom “get down to business” means to seriously start getting to work. This can be applied to projects at work or even during meetings. You could be having small talk with your coworkers at the beginning of a meeting when one of you says, “Okay, let’s get down to business” which translates to “Let’s actually start discussing the topic of this meeting.”

Get cranking” is an informal way of saying “get to work.” Suppose you are working on a project with a coworker. After the two of you decide on an idea for the project, you may say, “All right, let’s get cranking” which means you want to get started doing the work to execute the idea.

10. Due diligence

Related: Do your homework/research

Due diligence” is the necessary task or tasks you need to do to fulfill the basic needs of certain work. For example, you may have an upcoming meeting on wireless keyboard technology which you have no prior knowledge of. You would be doing your due diligence by learning the basics of wireless keyboards before attending the meeting.

Do your homework” or “do your research” holds the same meaning. You would be doing your homework by researching on wireless keyboards before the meeting.

11. Put the cart before the horse

To “put the cart before the horse” means you are doing something in the wrong order. For example, you may be trying to sell a new product before you even checked to see if there is any demand for it in the market.

12. Not going to fly

The phrase “not going to fly” is an informal way of saying something is not going to work. For instance, you may mention an idea to your team, and a coworker may say, “Yeah, that’s not going to fly with our boss” which means your boss will probably not approve of your idea.

13. Down the drain

Related: pull the plug, take it behind the barn and shoot it, scrap

When something goes “down the drain,” it means that something went to waste. Suppose you and your team worked on a project for months only to find out that your boss decided to stop the project altogether. All your hard work went down the drain, and it feels like your labor was in vain.

The idiom “pull the plug” means to put a stop to something. For example, your boss pulled the plug on the project you and your team were working on for months when he decided to discontinue it.

To take a project “behind the barn and shoot it” means to put a stop to the project. This is usually when the project is seen as no longer having the potential for success. The saying comes from when a farmer who raises livestock and judges that one of his animals is not of use anymore takes it behind his barn and end its life. To continue on from the company-setting example, your boss may have come to the conclusion that the project you and your team were working on does not have the potential to succeed, so she made the painful decision to take it behind the barn and shoot it.

Although the word “scrap” is not an idiom, it is commonly used word in company offices when an idea or project is put to a halt. Your boss scrapped the project you and your team were working on when she pulled the plug on it.

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14. Circle back

To “circle back” means to return to a certain point. You may get off topic at a meeting and then circle back to the main point of the meeting later, or you could be working on a project and then circle back to the starting point to revise the original project plan.

15. Crunch the numbers

To “crunch the numbers“ means to do the math or calculations for something that requires arithmetic computation. If you are an accountant, you would crunch the numbers on how much profit the company made in the fiscal year which means you are calculating that number by subtracting any costs from the company’s revenue.

16. Ramp up

To “ramp up” something means to increase the magnitude of a certain factor for some kind of work or project. Your company could ramp up marketing by pouring more money into online adverts.

17. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s

The idiom “dot your i’s and cross your t’s” means to be sure to be meticulous and pay attention to the details. For example, your manager may tell you to be sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s for your project proposal before presenting it in the next meeting. This means you should check all the details in your proposal, making sure all necessary details are present and accurate.

18. Troubleshoot

To “troubleshoot” means to solve problems or errors for something. Say you are creating a software program. You would be troubleshooting when you are trying to fix anything that went wrong with the software by fixing the code.

The word troubleshooting does not always have to be used in the technology context. You can also troubleshoot anything that went wrong in a marketing campaign or interior design plan.

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The Main Point

This section explains three idioms that are expressing the main point of a topic or discussion.

19. The bottom line

The “bottom line” means the final conclusion to a conversation or a point. Your manager may explain to your team that the next project is extremely crucial to your careers and then finish by saying, “The bottom line is whoever stands out in this next project is getting a promotion.”

20. In a nutshell

Related: In short, to sum it up

The expression “in a nutshell” means “to summarize in a few words.” Your coworker might be explaining a long list of reasons he does not like a certain software program and then ends his rant by saying, “In a nutshell, the program’s terrible, and we shouldn’t use it.” Because shells of nuts are small, when someone says “in a nutshell,” they are compressing their point into a short and compact line.

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Your coworker could also use the phrases “in short” or “to sum it up” as alternatives to “in a nutshell.” The three idioms have the same meaning and are interchangeable.

21. Big picture

The “big picture” is the whole situation that is a holistic sum of all relevant factors. When someone tells you to look at the big picture, they are saying you should see all aspects of the situation at hand. Say a coworker in a meeting suggests adding a very niche feature to the company’s main mobile app and goes on about the minute details. Your manager leading the meeting may say, “We should be looking at the big picture and consider what new features would make the majority of our users happy.”

Overwhelmed Much?

Here are some business idioms or phrases you would use in situations where you are overwhelmed.

22. Hands are tied

When your “hands are tied,” you are unable to act freely, usually because you are busy with too much work or do not have the authority or ability to do something. Suppose you are struggling to complete a time-sensitive project by yourself. Your coworker may say, “I would help you, but my hands are tied working on this other project.” Your coworker is busy with her own tasks, so that prevents her from aiding you on your project.

The idiom does not only apply when someone is busy. For instance, your manager may say, “I would love to give you a raise, but my hands are tied. You would have to talk to the CEO about that.” Your manager in this case does not have the authority to give you a raise, so you would have to consult someone of a higher position to negotiate one.

23. Bite off more than you can chew

Related: Have a lot on your plate, wearing (too) many hats

When you “bite off more than you can chew,” you are taking up more work than you can realistically handle. Say your manager is delegating tasks to your team, and you claim you can handle multiple tasks by yourself, only to regret it later because you cannot actually complete them all on time. You are biting off more than you can chew because you took on more work than you could actually keep up with.

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If you “have a lot on your plate,” that means you have an excessive amount of work or responsibilities whether it was assigned to you or you volunteered to take it up. Going off of the previous example, you now have a lot on your plate because you bit off more than you could chew.

The expression “wearing (too) many hats“ means you are trying to be responsible for many different roles or tasks. This can be prevalent in small startups where an employee could be the company’s software developer, HR manager, and accountant all at the same time.

24. Keep your head above water

Related: Stay on top of things/your game

To “keep your head above the water” is to be able to manage and persevere in a difficult situation. For example, you might be swamped with a large amount of work and barely manage to keep your head above the water. This means despite the immense workload, you are still able to handle it, although barely.

When someone tells you to “stay on top of things” or “stay on top of your game,” they are telling you to manage, be in control of, and be aware of your situation. You would stay on top of things by keeping track of all deadlines and managing your time efficiently to be able to finish all your tasks on time.

25. Hold the fort

The expression “hold the fort” is used when you are taking responsibility for someone else’s work while they are absent. Say your coworker who is a fellow accountant got sick. You would hold the fort by taking care of your coworker’s tasks while she is away. The saying came about during a war when a general told his men to hold a fort (not let it fall to the opposing forces) while he was not present. Alternative ways of saying this expression include “hold down the fort” and “hold up the fort,” but “hold the fort” is the most common way of saying the expression.

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26. Keep your eye on the ball

Related: On the ball

The phrase “keep your eye on the ball” can serve as a companion to “stay on top of things” because it means to pay attention to the matter at hand. For example, you would keep your eye on the ball at work by focusing on and prioritizing an important task you are working on. Similarly, “on the ball” means being alert and focused. You are on the ball at work when you are sharp and engaged at your job.

27. Burn out

Burning out” is when a company worker feels severe exhaustion from overworking at their workplace. If you have a coworker who is burned out, he is extremely tired from overworking, and this is most likely affecting his performance as well. “Burnout rate” is the rate at which people get burnt out from work, and it is not to be confused with “burn rate,” which is the rate at which a company spends money at a loss.

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