Let’s TOUCH BASE! 15 English idioms to use at work

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

Learning English Idioms can feel like a steep learning curve! Don’t bite your tongue! Let’s practise 15 useful idioms to use at work!

Business English idioms are used so often in the workplace – they are essential to learn and use if you want to understand conversations with your colleagues at work!

Video Transcript
Section 1
Well hey there I’m Emma from mmmEnglish.

If there is a place where English idioms are used most frequently it’s at work. Learning and using these idioms in the workplace with your colleagues, with your clients and your managers is an essential communication skill.

You need to understand the people that you work with and you want to develop a broader range of expressing your ideas in English, don’t you?

You want to sound intelligent and professional and sometimes you want to sound funny. Learning the business English idioms in today’s lesson is definitely going to help you to do that.

Are you ready?

Let’s start at the very moment that you get your job or even just before it because there are a couple of really fantastic idioms that you can use to talk about this moment.

The first is:

1. to get your foot in the door

And this means to enter an organisation or an industry for the first time. We use it to talk about starting out at a lower level or maybe a less desirable position within the organisation but there’s a chance or an intention of moving up and becoming more senior or becoming more successful.

So it talks about an opportunity to get started at a company, a company that you want to advance or progress within.

  • An internship is a great way to get your foot in the door.

To get your foot in the door of a company that you really want to work for.

  • Volunteering in your industry will probably help you to get your foot in the door.

You’ll get to meet some people who work in your field, you’ll get some relevant experience. So all of this is super helpful.

Now once you’ve got your foot in the door and you’re starting your new job, there’s always a period of time, maybe a week, two weeks, a month where you’ve got to get used to things.

You need to learn all the administrative processes. You’ve got to meet the team, you’ve got to take over some new projects and things that you’re working on. Hopefully, there’ll be someone there to show you the ropes.

2. to show someone the ropes

To show someone the ropes means to show them how to do a job or an activity.

  • I’ve never worked in customer service before but Kate showed me the ropes.

3. throw (someone) in the deep end

Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky when they start their job. Sometimes you just get thrown in the deep end which means you get put into a situation without a lot of preparation or much introduction.

You’ve kind of got to just work it out for yourself.

  • I was thrown in the deep end with my first teaching job. I had a class of fifty children with no experience or mentor to guide me. I’d never taught kids before. It was stressful. I had to learn really quickly.

Have you ever been thrown in the deep end when you started a new job? It’s nasty. Let me know about it down in the comments. See if you can use that idiom yourself.

4. a steep learning curve

  • So yeah, that first teaching job was a steep learning curve for me.

Have you heard about this noun before? A learning curve.

It’s often used with the adjective steep, a steep learning curve. So we use learning curve to talk about new skills that we’re acquiring at a job and that learning curve describes the rate at which someone progresses and they’re learning this new skill.

A steep learning curve is when you have to learn something very quickly in a short space of time and this can be really challenging like walking up a steep hill compared to walking up a nice gradual hill.

If you’re starting a job with no prior experience, it can be a really steep learning curve. Or if you don’t have anyone showing you the ropes, the first few weeks are going to be difficult, it’s going to be quite stressful. It can be a steep learning curve.

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As long as your English level is intermediate or above then your English is good enough to join the community. We offer a ten day free trial so that you can experience it for yourself and see what you think.

The link is down in the description below so that you can start your free trial today.

5. (do something) by the book

Let’s focus on some idioms now that are useful to describe the different ways of working. If you do something by the book, it means that you do something exactly as it should be done. You follow the rules, the laws or the steps, the procedure that you have been told to follow. So you do everything correctly. It’s by the book.

6. cut corners

On the other hand, if you cut corners that means you complete the task in the easiest, the quickest and maybe the cheapest way possible. It means that maybe you haven’t done the job as thoroughly as you should have done it and therefore the end result is maybe not as good as it could have been.

  • Now look, the company will be audited next month so I don’t want anyone cutting corners. We need everything done by the book!

Sometimes the work that you have to do is difficult or it’s complex. And sometimes you have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in, right?

7. have (one’s) work cut out

The idiom to have your work cut out for you describes exactly this situation.

  • Geez, you’ll have your work cut out for you finishing those reports by Friday.

It’s going to be hard work to get everything done by Friday. There’s a lot to do and not a lot of time.

8. make light/short work of (something)

But then sometimes you think that a job is going to be hard or it’s going to take a lot of time but you’re surprised when you get something done quickly and easily.

So in this situation, we use make light work or short work of something.

  • He made light work of writing the reports.

He wrote them quickly and it was easy to do.

Now you can actually use this idiom outside of a work context too. Let’s say I made a delicious cake and when I came back an hour later it was all gone.

  • You certainly made short work of that cake.

It’s gone, it was eaten very quickly. It was finished very quickly.

Communication is an essential part of our work lives, right? Without effective communication, most of our plans or our projects and our relationships, they would completely fail.

So whether you work for yourself and most of the time you’re communicating with your own clients or maybe you work as part of a team and you communicate with your colleagues then there are definitely some awesome idioms to help you communicate in English.

9. touch base

We use the idiom to touch base with somebody in a similar way as we use the phrasal verb check-in.

So when you touch base with someone you talk to them quickly and you find out how they’re doing or what they think about something or about a project that they’ve been working on.

  • Can we touch base next week sometime to discuss the budget?

10. cut to the chase

Okay but what about when you’re rushed, you’re in a hurry, you’ve got a lot of work to do and you just need to be quite direct in this conversation, we need to just talk about the things that are really important.

You want to cut to the chase. This is the perfect idiom for that situation. It means you want to talk about the important things straight away without wasting any time.

  • I haven’t got much time so let’s just cut to the chase. How much is this gonna cost?

Just be a little careful with this one. Using this idiom in the wrong way can come off a little rude at times.

You know if you’re just in a hurry and the other person is talking about something totally unrelated or maybe you’re not particularly interested in it and you’re thinking please hurry up, come on. Then that’s not the right time to use this idiom, to cut to the chase.

It’s more something that you say when you want to bypass or skip the usual small talk and chit-chat and just get to the important stuff.

  • We all know why we’re here so let’s just cut to the chase.

11. bite your tongue

All right, managing the different relationships that you have at work, maybe with colleagues and clients and different people that you encounter at work. This is really important and it means sometimes you’ve got to hold back and not say what you really think, you have to bite your tongue.

  • I wanted to tell him that his idea was ridiculous but I bit my tongue.

Sometimes it’s just not appropriate to say what you really think at work, is it?

And that’s exactly the situation where you might need to bite your tongue. Zip it. Don’t say anything. You know, bite that tongue.

12. rock the boat

Now unfortunately and I think we’ve all probably experienced it, problems can come up at work so having a few creative ways to talk about things that are bothering you or frustrating you can really help to lighten the mood a little. So this one to rock the boat, it describes when you do or you say something that upsets people or it causes problems.

Let’s say you want to talk to your boss about your new manager who actually has been spending a lot of time outside of the office lately and then you think:

  • She’s been so stressed lately since Jessica resigned. I don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe I’ll just wait till next month to mention this.

I don’t want to change or disrupt or affect the current situation myself so I’m not gonna do anything.

Sometimes you have to deal with problems that are caused by other people. Maybe they’re new and they made a mistake or they did something by accident or maybe you work with a really lazy, careless colleague and they just don’t really care much about their job.

13. put out fires

But when it’s you spending all of your time trying to solve these problems that other people have created, little annoying things that are stopping you from doing your work, well, then we can use this idiom to talk about that, to put out fires.

  • Well, we launched the product update successfully but then no one could log into the platform. I spent the day responding to complaints and putting out fires.

So I mean I spent the day fixing the problems that were created by the platform update.

It was stressful, people were annoyed, it meant that I didn’t get any of the work that I was supposed to do done. I just spent my day putting out fires.

14. (to be) in hot water

Have you ever heard anyone say they’re in hot water?

Well, this means they’re in trouble, they could be in trouble with someone. They’re probably in a difficult situation because of something that they did or didn’t do and now they’re at risk of being criticised or embarrassed or punished.

  • The CEO’s in a bit of hot water about those comments that she made over the competitors.

15. call it a day

Okay your work is done. The day is over, it’s time to go home. Then you can call it a day.

  • I’m exhausted. Let’s call it a day.
  • Okay, I think it’s time to call it a day. We’ll finish the rest tomorrow.

So there you have it, my friends! You just learned fifteen useful business idioms, all of them are essential to learn and to use at work. The best way to do that, to learn and to use English idioms fluently is to think about when and how they might apply to you and to your work life.

So for homework, I want you to choose five of the idioms that you learned in this lesson and tell me about your workplace and how these idioms relate to you down in the comments below. I’ll make sure I get down there and I’ll check them for you just to make sure that you’re using these idioms in the right context and in the right way.

Thank you so much for joining me today, I will see you in this next lesson right here. I think you’re gonna love it!

Links mentioned in the video

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