50 English Work Idioms Every Expat Should Know

Career By Stefan Zechner November 1, 2017


According to the Education First English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), English skills are a basic requirement in today’s global economy.

But while most English courses focus on fundamental grammar and vocabulary, very few account for the jargon an expat could hear in the workplace. Here are the 50 most common American English idioms you might stumble upon, and how to use them:


1. Cut corners
Meaning: to do something the easiest or quickest way
How to use it: “Cutting corners on case studies will result in careless errors.”


2. It’s not rocket science
Meaning: something is not complicated to understand
How to use it: “Just look up the answer online; it’s not rocket science.”


3. Get the ball rolling
Meaning: to get started
How to use it: “It’s time to get the ball rolling on the 2018 forecast.”


4. Up to speed
Meaning: to be familiar with current information
How to use it: “We have a new team member starting this week. Can everyone help him get up to speed on our accounts?”


5. On the back burner
Meaning: low priority
How to use it: “Put that report on the back burner and focus on new business.”


6. Back to the drawing board
Meaning: to start again after a plan or idea was not successful
How to use it: “The client rejected our original concept, so it’s back to the drawing board.”


7. For the long haul
Meaning: A long period of time
How to use it: “The new business pitch will be hard work, but we’re in it for the long haul.”


8. Burn the midnight oil
Meaning: to consistently work beyond normal business hours
How to use it: “Our manager is burning the midnight oil to meet every deadline.”


9. Change of pace
Meaning: to do something different from a normal routine
How to use it: “Company outings are a nice change of pace from our regular work week.”


10. Think outside the box
Meaning: to go beyond a normal idea
How to use it: “Stop looking at past examples and think outside the box.”


11. On the same page
Meaning: to have a shared understanding with others
How to use it: “Let’s all communicate constantly so we are on the same page.”


12. Out on a limb
Meaning: to do or say something risky
How to use it: “She went out on a limb to defend my unconventional strategy.”


13. Jump the gun
Meaning: to do something early or before the right time
How to use it: “Next time, do more research instead of jumping the gun.”


14. Throw in the towel
Meaning: to quit or accept failure
How to use it: “After receiving negative feedback, she was ready to throw in the towel.”


15. Miss the mark
Meaning: to fail to achieve an intended goal
How to use it: “Please redo the presentation since you missed the mark the first time.”


16. Stay on your toes
Meaning: to stay alert
How to use it: “There will be random testing on this, so stay on your toes.”


17. Raise the bar
Meaning: to raise standards or expectations
How to use it: “The team must raise the bar if we want to win a customer service award.”


18. Back to square one
Meaning: back to the beginning
How to use it: “If we lose our funding for more research, it’ll be back to square one.”


19. Hit the nail on the head
Meaning: to find exactly the right answer
How to use it: “That’s what I was thinking — you hit the nail on the head.”


20. Cut to the chase
Meaning: to get to the point without wasting time
How to use it: “Stop talking about irrelevant statistics and cut to the chase.”


21. Rock the boat
Meaning: to disturb a situation
How to use it: “The team is finally working well together. A new hire may rock the boat.”


22. To be in hot water
Meaning: to be in trouble
How to use it: “My coworker is in hot water after sending a rude email.”


23. Get your foot in the door
Meaning: to enter an organization or industry
How to use it: “A coffee meeting can help you get your foot in the door with prospective clients.”


24. Small talk
Meaning: a discussion about everyday topics
How to use it: “The employees made small talk about their weekends while waiting outside the board room.”


25. Have your work cut out
Meaning: to have something very difficult to do
How to use it: “She has her work cut out for her when it comes to training the new team.”


26. See eye to eye
Meaning: to agree
How to use it: “My boss and I don’t always see eye to eye on reporting techniques.”


27. To be in the dark
Meaning: to be uninformed
How to use it: “The company merger is confidential, so we’re going to keep some employees in the dark.”


28. The bottom line
Meaning: the most important part
How to use it: “It may be a good idea, but the bottom line is that it’s not profitable.”


29. Call the shots
Meaning: to make the major decisions
How to use it: “Ultimately, it’s the client’s choice since they call the shots.”


30. Slack off
Meaning: to work lazily
How to use it: “Don’t expect a promotion if you’re constantly slacking off.”


31. Glass ceiling
Meaning: a metaphorical barrier preventing advancement to a higher position
How to use it: “I think there’s a glass ceiling because I don’t see any room for growth here.”


32. Fine print
Meaning: details of a contract that are usually overlooked
How to use it: “Always read the fine print before signing a contract.”


33. Crunch the numbers
Meaning: to do a lot of calculations or to solve a problem
How to use it: “We’ll need to crunch the numbers to make sure we can afford this.”


34. Have a lot on your plate
Meaning: to have a lot of responsibilities
How to use it: “I have a lot on my plate since my supervisor quit last week.”


35. Learning curve
Meaning: the rate of gaining experience or new skills
How to use it: “New employees usually have a learning curve.”


36. Ramp up
Meaning: to increase
How to use it: “The team needs to ramp up productivity in order to meet their deadlines.”


37. In the red
Meaning: to be in debt
How to use it: “If my company loses this client, we’ll be in the red for months.”


38. The ball’s in your court
Meaning: to have the responsibility or to take action
How to use it: “We handed off the assets so the ball’s in your court now.”


39. Off the top of one’s head
Meaning: to know immediately
How to use it: “I can’t think of any ideas off the top of my head; I’ll have to do more research.”


40. Long shot
Meaning: a low likelihood of something happening
How to use it: “It’s a long shot, but maybe we can convince our boss to take Fridays off.”


41. 24/7
Meaning: 24 hours a day, seven days a week
How to use it: “He’s in the office 24/7 due to his heavy workload.”


42. By the book
Meaning: to do something by law or rule
How to use it: “The company fired the CEO for not doing things by the book.”


43. Ballpark figure
Meaning: a rough estimate
How to use it: “If you don’t’ know the exact cost, just give a ballpark figure.”


44. Blue-sky thinking
Meaning: ideas that are feasible in a perfect world
How to use it: “The manager’s blue-sky thinking always resulted in unrealistic expectations.”


45. Punch a puppy
Meaning: to do something unpleasant
How to use it: “The boss was really punching a puppy when he laid off 15 people.”


46. Thought shower
Meaning: to come up with a bunch of ideas
How to use it: “We need a thought shower to come up with new ideas.”


47. Close of play
Meaning: the end of a working day
How to use it: “You need to finish the audit by close of play.”


48. Peel the onion
Meaning: to look at something one layer at a time
How to use it: “Let’s peel the onion to figure out where we messed up.”


49. Helicopter view
Meaning: a general idea of what’s happening
How to use it: “I only have a couple minutes to chat; just give me a helicopter view of the report.”


50. Fortnight
Meaning: a period of two weeks
How to use it: “She worked day and night for a fortnight to finish the proposal.”


Adjusting to the expat lifestyle takes more than learning the lingo. Discover the most common challenges expats face here.