Feeling confident enough in your English to comfortably use it in a workplace setting already presents enough of a challenge for non-native speakers, and that’s without taking the plethora of idioms, phrases and terms that are specific to business English into account.
Business English is full of idioms that are second nature to native speakers, but that can sometimes seem designed to confuse everyone else. You’re going to “show me the ropes” this week? Which ropes? I was under the impression that this was an accounting job?!
Some of these business English idioms seem to pop up in office settings more than others, and, thankfully, you’ll likely hear them repeated often enough that you’ll soon become fluent in circling back and thinking outside of the box.
To help you along on your journey towards business English fluency (and to ensure you’re on the same page as your English-speaking colleagues), we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common idioms and phrases you’ll find in Canadian office settings.
Meaning: When it’s necessary for those who are responsible for a project/plan to go back
to the beginning and try something new because the original project/plan didn’t work out.
Examples: 1. I really thought the marketing plan was going to work out, but we haven’t
had much interest in the new product. I guess it’s back to the drawing board.
Meaning: An approximate number/an estimate (of the cost of something, for example).
Examples: Do you have a ballpark figure for the cost of the party? 2. The plumber
told us he thinks the work will cost around $300, but that’s just a ballpark figure.
Meaning: The procedures (typically in professional settings) that have been determined
to be the most ideal/effective.
Examples: 1. Studying hospitality in college allowed me to understand the best
practices of hotel management. 2. The school’s performance rates increased after its
leaders began observing and following the best practices of other successful schools in
Meaning: To contribute something useful, to (for example) a conversation, workplace,
Examples: 1. What would you bring to the table in this role? 2. Our new sales
representative, Sandy, brings a lot of experience and enthusiasm to the table.
Meaning: To do things strictly according to the official rules.
Examples: 1. I don’t think Ginny will agree to switch shifts with me before checking with
our boss first; she always does things exactly by the book. 2. We don’t always do things
by the book here. We prefer employees who take initiative over those who always play
by the rules.
Meaning: Used to announce the ending of an activity/project; implies that enough work
has been done on the project/activity (or as much work as can be done).
Examples: 1. I think you’ve spent enough time on the case this evening. Why don’t you
call it a day and return to it first thing in the morning? 2. I’m exhausted. I think I’m going
to call it a day!
Meaning: Used when someone wants to revisit a topic that was previously discussed.
Examples: 1. Let’s circle back to what Amber was saying about the merger… 2. You
were saying you had some ideas for the banquet—can we circle back to those ideas?
Meaning: A company that has the most control of a certain product or service and can
therefore affect or dictate its market value is said to have cornered the market.
Examples: 1. With the launch of our latest line of products, we’re hoping to finally corner
the household cleaner market. 2. They’ve been trying to corner the market on
Meaning: To do something in an easy or cheap way and perhaps even ignore crucial
details (with the aim of saving time/money, for example).
Examples: 1. Yes, it’s going to be incredibly time consuming, but I refuse to cut corners
on this project. 2. The school board has been criticized for cutting corners when they built
the new high school.
Meaning: A plan or strategy that has been devised with the aim of guaranteeing success,
as in a sports game.
Examples: 1. Before we get started on this project, we need to come up with a game
plan. 2. The project failed because we didn’t have a clear game plan.
Meaning: To launch (i.e., start/establish) something successfully.
Examples: 1. We’re going to have to put in a lot of work to get this project off the ground.
2. He’s really hopeful that he’ll finally be able to get his business idea off
Meaning: To put something (such as a project or other activity) in motion; in other words,
to start something.
Examples: 1. I want to go around and let each of you share your thoughts on the new
software. Who wants to get the ball rolling? 2. Are you all available this afternoon to
discuss the fundraiser? I really want to get the ball rolling on the planning for that.
Meaning: To go beyond the baseline expectations for a task.
Examples: 1. She’s always willing to go the extra mile to ensure her projects are
submitted on time. 2. He’s the only graphic designer I ever use because he’s always
willing to go the extra mile.
Meaning: To be in control of a situation.
Examples: 1. There’s a new general manager in the driver’s seat, which means
things are going to start changing around here. 2. I’m going to be in the driver’s seat
next week while my boss is away, as he has named me the interim manager.
Meaning: To be informed about/involved in something (e.g., plans for an event or project)
/to not be informed about/involved in something.
Examples: 1. Keep me in the loop about the fundraiser! I’d love to help out. 2. What’s
going on with the fundraiser? I feel like I’m out of the loop.
Meaning: To learn how to do something (such as a job, task, activity, etc.)/to show
someone else how to do something.
Examples: 1. Welcome to the team! My name is Carol and I’ll be showing you the ropes.
2. I haven’t received much direction at my new job, so I’ve had to learn the ropes on
Meaning: To be in agreement about something/see something the same way.
Examples: 1. He and I weren’t on the same page about the direction of the project,
so we’re going to ask our boss for her input. 2. We all need to be on the same page
about the proposal before we present it to the rest of the team.
Meaning: To tentatively (i.e., provisionally) schedule something (or schedule time
Examples: 1. I’m not 100% about my schedule next week, but let’s pencil in our meeting
for Thursday at 10 a.m. 2. I should be around next month, so go ahead and pencil me in
Meaning: To continue with a task or project until it is completed.
Examples: 1. We’ve come so far already, and I’m determined to see this project through
until the very end. 2. Say what you will about Brent’s ability to meet deadlines, but at
least he always sees things through until the end.
Meaning: In a business context, the bottom line refers to the total profits, net income or
earnings of a company. Literally, the bottom line is the last line on a balance sheet (which
shows the total).
Examples: 1. How are these expenses going to affect our bottom line? 2. We’re hoping
that the cost-saving measures we’ve implemented help us improve our bottom line.
Meaning: The overarching view/perspective of a situation or issue; often refers to how a
situation will unfold in the long term.
Example: 1. It’s important for us to look at the big picture and not get bogged down by
the details. 2. The mistakes you made might seem important now, but in the big picture,
they don’t really matter.
Meaning: To think in an original, unconventional way.
Examples: 1. We’re really going to have to think outside the box to solve our hiring
issues. 2. This role requires someone highly creative who can think outside of the box.
Meaning: To make contact with someone (in other words, to get in touch with someone).
Examples: 1. Hi Jenny, I hope this email finds you well. I’m just touching base to see if
you’ve had a chance to review my proposal… 2. I’ll touch base next week to see how
you’re getting on with the project.
Meaning: To be “up to speed” is to have all of the latest information about something. You
can “bring (someone) up to speed” by sharing all of the latest information about
something with that person.
Examples: 1. Why don’t you bring Brian up to speed on the new project? 2. Do you have
a minute to help me get up to speed on how to use this software?
Meaning: Hearing about a service or product through word of mouth refers to hearing
about it from another person (such as a friend) rather than through official marketing
channels (such as advertisements, for example).
Examples: 1. Most of our current clients have found us through word of mouth, but we’re
hoping to start advertising online this year. 2. “How did you hear about us?” “Through
word of mouth! My neighbour loves your products.”