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When George first started his new job, he was put on an onboarding programme for second-line support staff at the Contact Centre. He was informed of his KPIs and given a chance to touch base with his line manager.
When we read things like this, it seems like the world of business has an entirely new language that we need to learn: Business English.
In fact, that’s not true. A good command of “general English” is enough for 99% of the daily interactions at work.
You can expect to make requests, give orders, follow orders, confirm information and so on. But these are all things that we also do in our daily lives outside of work, so there is no need to panic!
However, if you are entering an English-speaking work environment for the first time, you can expect to hear a lot of new and unusual words and phrases.
In this guide, I’ll introduce some of these words and phrases, and explain how to use them.
Are there idioms specifically for business?
Yes, there are idioms specifically for business. Remember that idioms are not ‘slang’ and it is okay to use them in a business setting.
In fact, it is a good habit to learn some business idioms. It will make your English more expressive. Let’s see five examples that are easy to use.
Idiom 1: Touch base
Meaning: to have a short discussion
Example: I dropped by Paolo’s office to touch base before the presentation tomorrow.
Idiom 2: Learn the ropes
Meaning: to learn how to do a new job
Example: Maria is new here. I need someone to help her learn the ropes.
Idiom 3: Game plan
Example: Okay, guys, we have a big pitch on Thursday. What’s our game plan?
Idiom 4: Go the extra mile
Meaning: to do something extra or unexpected (for a customer)
Example: Linda really goes the extra mile for her clients. She even sends them cakes on their birthdays.
Idiom 5: Bull market/bear market
Meaning: a growth period in the stock market (bull market) or a period of decrease (bear market)
Example: Investors have enjoyed a bull market for the last three months, but the bears may be just around the corner.
You may notice that a lot of business language is very ‘strong’ (bulls and bears) or based on sports or war. This is because business was traditionally a male-dominated area, and this shows in the language.
Business language goes in and out of fashion
English, like any language, changes over time.
Business English changes even faster, as companies look for new trends and ideas to help them get ahead.
There are new business terms in fashion all the time. We call these ‘buzzwords’.
Let’s see some examples that you can read about on business websites right now.
Buzzword 1: Bandwidth
Meaning: the time to do something
Example: I’ll try to get the report done by Friday, but I don’t have much bandwidth right now.
Buzzword 2: Leverage
Meaning: to use something to your advantage
Example: We need to leverage our market share to build our brand awareness.
Buzzword 3: Stakeholder*
Meaning: a person with an interest in something
Example: We’ll have a meeting tomorrow with all the stakeholders in this project.
*Not the same as shareholder/stockholder - a person who owns a share of a company
Buzzword 4: A quick win
Meaning: a way to succeed quickly
Example: We’re looking for a quick win here. We’ll buy this company, inject cash and then sell it to an overseas investor.
Buzzword 5: Take this to the next level
Meaning: to proceed with a plan
Example: We’ve done a market survey and even recruited personnel. It’s time to take the project to the next level.
A warning about buzzwords
Like with all fashion trends, buzzwords can be used too much. We start to hear these words every day and become tired of them. At this point, they become ‘clichés’ (boring, overused phrases) and people no longer like to hear them.
A good example of a business cliché is ‘think outside the box’. It was fashionable to use this phrase ten years ago, but many people now find it annoying.
Business trends are reflected in business language
As well as language trends, there are business trends that come and go.
For example, one of the biggest trends in business at the moment is for companies to become more ‘socially aware’.
This means that companies should not only focus on profits, but should think about how their employees are treated and how they impact the environment and community.
This means that companies often talk about diversity or DEI - diversity, equality and inclusion.
Diversity, in this context, means hiring people of different races, genders and ages and making them feel welcome.
A company that only hires middle-aged, white, male employees, for example, would be said to have ‘diversity issues’.
Another social issue is ‘work-life balance’. This is the concept that employees shouldn’t work too many hours. They should balance their work and their home life.
The environment is a major concern for businesses, and you will often hear companies talking about ‘reducing their carbon footprint’. In short, this means reducing their negative impact on the environment.
You might also hear of ESG - environmental, social and governance. This ties together concepts of environmental awareness, social issues (diversity/work-life balance) and good governance (good management).
Companies love a good acronym
One thing that you will notice about business language is the love of acronyms - perhaps because ‘time is money’ and acronyms allow you to express a concept faster!
We have already seen DEI and ESG. The most feared acronym for employees is ‘KPIs’ - key performance indicators.
‘KPIs’ just means a measurement of how well a person should perform. For example, an HR manager may have a KPI that any empty position should be filled within two months.
Why are KPIs feared? Because at your yearly performance review (assessment of how well you have done this year), if you haven’t fulfilled your KPIs, you might be in big trouble!
Other common acronyms we see these days are the C-suite positions (highest positions in the company). We call them C-suite because they always start with C. Here are some examples:
CEO - Chief Executive Officer
CTO - Chief Technology Officer
CFO - Chief Financial Officer
COO - Chief Operating Officer
But the top acronyms in the past few years are WFH and WFO. Simply put, if you WFH, you work from home. If you WFO, you work from (the) office.
Business language can be overly formal
Business people seem to love to use language like this:
“We need to place Research and Development at the forefront of our strategic business positioning in order to maximise our potential.”
This is just a formal way to say:
“We should focus more on Research and Development.”
So which way is better?
Although you might think the first sentence sounds more like business language, the second, shorter, sentence is actually better.
It is always better to be short and straight to the point. Don’t try to use long, abstract phrases to impress people. Remember, time is money and shorter is better, especially in business writing.
And, as with general English, a strong verb (like ‘focus’ and not ‘need to place’) is the key to a good sentence. It doesn’t need to be formal. ‘Buy’ is just as good as ‘purchase’. ‘Explain’ is just as good as ‘elaborate’.
There is a trend towards words ending in -ise (-ize in American English) in business, perhaps because -ise verbs can sound strong and active.
Examples are maximise, prioritise, incentivise, monetise and conceptualise.
Some of these words take a noun (money/monetise; concept/conceptualise) and make it into a verb.
The result can actually be a very abstract and weak verb, so you should think twice before using these words.
Weak: We need to reconeptualise our previous strategy.
Strong: Let’s sit down and create a more effective strategy.
The second sentence is better because it is direct and clear. You can imagine people ‘sitting down and creating a strategy’, but you can’t imagine people ‘reconceptualising’.
People sometimes even say the word ‘utilise’ even though it simply means ‘use’. Why make things more complicated when there’s no need.
The lesson here is, don’t think that you need to use long and trendy words in business. Stick to short, strong words with clear and direct meanings. If in doubt, follow George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing.
If you have any concerns…
A euphemism is a softer or nicer way of saying something. For example, we may say that someone ‘passed away’ instead of saying that they ‘died’.
Business has its own euphemisms.
For instance, someone who is ‘between jobs’ is actually unemployed.
An interesting example is the way that managers sometimes avoid the word ‘problem’. Instead, they use words like ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’.
Direct language: We had a lot of problems with the prototype.
Euphemism: There were some issues with the prototype.
Direct language: Your work isn’t very good.
Euphemism: I have some concerns about the quality of your work.
Money is another area where we use euphemisms or indirect language.
Direct language: I can’t afford it.
Euphemism: It’s not within my budget.
Direct language: We can’t afford it. Can you reduce the price?
Euphemism: We have some concerns about the pricing. Is it possible to quote a more favourable fee?
Note that, in the last example, the reason for the long and indirect language is not to be more formal, but to be softer when talking about the sensitive issue of money.
There’s always more to learn
I have noticed that large companies often have their own corporate jargon that you will only hear in their office. One company that I worked for even gave me a list of their own acronyms when I began work for them!
So, there’s always more to learn.
The jargon, idioms and buzzwords that I have covered here are just a sample. There are many more for you to discover now that you know how it works.
If you would like to keep up to date with this business jargon, I would recommend reading the business news or watching it on TV.
But remember, there is no need to learn all of these business idioms and buzzwords. Your time is much better spent improving your English fluency, not memorising lists of “business English words”.
In fact, there are plenty of people campaigning against corporate jargon.
If anyone tells you otherwise, you can tell them that even the Harvard Business Review thinks we should stop using it!