Common Business English Idioms and Phrases

We spend the week working 9 to 5 (though it feels like 24/7) burning the midnight oil and busting our butts for the man. Day in and day out, it’s all about staying ahead of the curve and focused on the big picture, but the only way to do that is if our colleagues are all on the same page as us but it just feels like a constant race against time.

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We gotta raise red flags to avoid our bosses being out of the loop, but going forward, we really need a changing of the guard. One day, I’ll be the one to call the shots; and I won’t be that guy who rakes someone over the coals because they forgot to cc me on some pointless email.

That is, of course, if they don’t give me the old heave-ho.

Business jargon, idioms, and expressions, or just generic “management speak” can be a bit complicated. The phrases above say a lot but at the same time say very little.

Let’s see if we can break it down into something a bit more intelligible:

Working 9 to 5

Traditionally, this refers to the normal working hours for a standard office; including an hour for lunch and a couple of 15-minute coffee breaks. It’s also a classic Dolly Parton song, but be forewarned; by clicking on that YouTube link, you’re in for a truly powerful earworm.


All day, every day. Like a 7-Eleven convenience store.

Burn the midnight oil

Originally this was by the light of an oil lamp or candle, but now it just means to work until late in the night NOT sitting on the sofa and watch TV with your cat curled up beside you.

To bust your butt

To work very hard to do, accomplish, or complete something. As in, “I’ve been busting my butt all week to get this presentation ready for tomorrow’s meeting, and now my computer decided to crash.”

The man

The boss or the company for whom one works. It can be the government, a large corporation or some other authority in a position of power. Depending on the context, Big Brother, but not your cool big brother who had a Volkswagen van when you were in high school.

Day in and day out

Every day, all the time, in a repetitive manner. Forever. Never-ending.

To stay ahead of the curve

To be faster about doing something than other people or companies. Having a to-do list which doesn’t give you night terrors.

The big picture

The ideal outcome or entire perspective on a situation or issue; the end goal. A way to demonstrate that you understand the objectives of your company or clients.

To be on the same page

Agreeing about something, such as how things should be done; to be reading from the same book. Having some semblance of a shared purpose with your colleagues or counterparts.

Race against time

To be under the gun, against the clock, or under a deadline. Similar to that scene in Superman where he changes the rotation of the Earth to save Lois Lane.

Red flags

An indication that something terrible is going to happen.

Out of the loop

Uninformed or unaware of a situation because you’re not receiving the necessary information. Clueless because nobody told you what was happening.

Going forward

In the future, from now on. There are a number of debates on whether this phrase is useful or annoying; personally, I think it’s just fine. Not like “please advise”, which needs to be removed from English entirely.

Changing of the guard

Out with the old (boss) and in with the new one (me, ideally).

To call the shots

To make the decisions or be in charge.

That guy

The person that everyone dislikes and nobody wants to be.

To rake someone over the coals

To scold or reprimand someone for doing something they shouldn’t have done. This should only be done when necessary, but remember; praise in public and criticize in private.


“Carbon Copy”, or just simply “copy” someone in an email. Most companies have strict and unclear rules on this as some bosses hate when you do this, while others hate when you don’t.

To give someone the old heave-ho

To fire, sack, or get rid of someone because of poor performance. “Your services are no longer needed in this company.”

To break something down

To reduce into smaller parts and explain each in more detail. Very similar to this entire post.

Overall, idioms are frequently used in business English, and a simple Google search will give you a seemingly endless amount to go through. Some will be for specific situations, some will be based on UK English or North American English.

My view is this; your goal should be to pick up a few that you think are “cool” and use them whenever necessary while asking your peers or a trainer if there are other funy ways to express the same thing.

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