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Useful Work-related Idioms List (Business English)

Useful Work-Related Idioms for Business English Class (Teacher’s Resource)

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I have extracted the work-related idioms from a master list of 190 useful idioms I had previously compiled (view the idiom list here.) The below list is 2 printed pages and contains 36 work-related idioms.

I have provided idiom definitions in the list below. However, definitions are not available in the downloadable file for two reasons: Firstly, students are more interested when they can try to figure out the idiomatic expression and guess its meaning by themselves. I tried to provide enough context for this in my examples. Secondly, you, the teacher, will be there to define the expression if need be. You need to prove your use somehow :)


  • Always review the idioms you studied in the previous class. Here is a good warm-up activity (requiring pictures) to review them.
  • After you have taught 10 or so idioms, do this role-play activity to give your students a chance to use the expressions in conversation.

The Idiom List

Download: EC-Work-Idioms-Intermediate-Advanced (DOC)

(note: “sth” = something, “sb” = somebody)

The ball is in your court
The ball is in their court now. Let’s wait for their decision.

= used to say that YOU now have control of the situation
be in hot water
Ken was in hot water about forgetting his wedding anniversary.

= to be in trouble
a long haul
Peter told his boss that he wouldn’t quit. He’s in it for the long haul.

= the long road; the option that takes the most time
know/learn the ropes
It took me a month to learn the ropes at my new job.

= the process of learning about sth so you are comfortable with it
set the record straight
In a TV interview, the politician set the record straight about his experiences in the military.

= to clarify what is true/factual about a story or thing
line of work
The fireman said that injuries were common in his line of work.

= job field; type of work
burn your bridges
Jack tried to be kind to his boss when he quit in job because he didn’t want to burn his bridges.

= ruin a relationship, resulting in you being unable to return somewhere
get/be given the sack / sack (verb)
Alan got the sack for repeatedly coming into work late.

= to be fired
on the back burner
The project was put on the back burner while the company focused on a more immediate problem.

= set as a lower priority
talk shop
Everyone agreed not to talk shop at the staff party.

= to talk about work-related things
start/get the ball rolling
It’s time we start the ball rolling on the new project.

= to take the first step to begin a process
get your foot in the door
Janice took a position as an administrative assistant to get her foot in the door at the famous fashion company.

= to complete the first step towards achieving an opportunity
small talk
After some small talk, the interview began.

= discussion about light topics such as the weather
put sth on hold
Greg had to put his weekend plans on hold and go into the office on Saturday for a few hours.

= to postpone sth
have your work cut out
If we want to finish this by Friday, then we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

= expression that means you have a lot of work to do in little time
see eye to eye
Mike and his father don’t see eye to eye on the issue of abortion.

= to agree on sth; to have the same views on sth
Roger is an up-and-coming hockey player from Toronto.

= young and rising to the top; new and becoming successful
call it a day
It’s already 6 pm. Let’s call it a day.

= expression said near the end of a day which means “That’s enough for today. Let’s end and go home.”
twist sb’s arm
I really had to twist my sister’s arm to get her to pick me up from the airport.

= to make a great effort to convince sb to do sth for you
be in the dark / keep sb in the dark
Most of the employees were kept in the dark about the merger until the last minute.

= to be uninformed; to not be told know what’s happening
the bottom line
A: Doctor, what’s the bottom line?
B: If you don’t quit smoking, you’ll die within a year.

= the final result
call the shots
The boss told Janet to call the shots while he was away.

= to make the decisions
the fine/small print
My father reads the fine print on every contract he signs.

= the information typed in a smaller font, usually on a contract
pick sb’s brains
Mike is a marketing genius. People often invite him to lunch or dinner so they can pick his brains.

= to ask someone many questions so you can learn from him/her
be in the red
The company has been in the red since September.

= at a deficit; running at a loss; losing money
a rule of thumb
As a rule of thumb, I don’t eat food that smells bad.

= a personal principle
be on the same wavelength
The group members were all on the same wavelength, so they were able to finish their project quickly.

= to think in a similar way to others
up to speed
After her holiday, it took Kate a few hours to get back up to speed on the recent developments in her company.

= to be updated; to not be behind; to have all the current information
to be swamped
Wendy was swamped. She had so many papers on her desk, she didn’t know where to begin.

= to have too much work to do
Todd was headhunted by his company’s main competitor.

= recruited for a position
breathe down sb’s neck
Jim found it hard to focus on his work with his boss breathing down his neck.

= to make someone feel uncomfortable by watching them very closely
climb to the top of the career/corporate ladder
Having children can be an obstacle for women who want to climb (to the top of) the corporate ladder.

= to ascend in a company by being promoted from lower positions to higher ones
red tape
Mark’s visa application was held up for six months because of red tape.

= bureaucracy; formal rules that usually make something hard to do
give sb free rein
When his father died, Mark was given free rein to do whatever he liked with the family business.

= to give someone free control of something
slack off / be a slacker
When the boss was on holiday, everyone at the office slacked off.

= to work unproductively and lazily
glass ceiling
The company has a glass ceiling that prevents women from being promoted to higher positions.

= a metaphor for a barrier that prevents people, typically women or minorities, from ascending to high positions.

Questions? Found a mistake? Leave a comment below!

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14 Comments on this page

  1. sarah (Posted March 27, 2013 | Reply)

    Is rein the American spelling? English spelling would be reign

    • mb (Posted March 27, 2013 | Reply)

      Hi Sarah. To answer your question, no. Rein is the verb you use when you control a horse (with reins). You rein the horses in. Reign is a separate verb.

  2. adl1652 (Posted April 8, 2013 | Reply)

    Yes, rein should be spelled reign.

    • mb (Posted April 8, 2013 | Reply)

      “The idiomatic phrase free rein, which derives from the literal meaning of using reins to control a horse, is sometimes misinterpreted and written as free reign —predictable, perhaps, in a society only vaguely familiar with the reigns of royalty or the reins of farm animals. Also confused is the related phrase rein in, sometimes written incorrectly as reign in.” – Oxford

      • Deanimator (Posted May 13, 2013 | Reply)

        Agree. Rein is used correctly here.

  3. Donna (Posted February 21, 2014 | Reply)

    This is the best list of business English idioms that I have found. Thank you! 

    • SAEED (Posted October 12, 2014 | Reply)


  4. murali sankaran (Posted September 24, 2014 | Reply)

    Awesome…. More…

  5. SAEED (Posted October 12, 2014 | Reply)


  6. SAEED (Posted October 12, 2014 | Reply)


  7. Shirley (Posted February 9, 2015 | Reply)

    under the idiom: “know/learn the ropes”, the definition may have a spelling error: what is: “sth”??

    • Don (Posted May 5, 2015 | Reply)

      Sth is a common stand-in for “something”

  8. align construction (Posted April 5, 2015 | Reply)

    give me idioms for construction company?/

  9. idioms (Posted February 18, 2016 | Reply)

    I always love to read idioms, and it’s a nice list of work related idioms.
    Thank you Lilly

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