Updated: Jun 6
Idioms are very common in workplace conversations. Whether you are speaking to a colleague, an employee, or a manager, there is a very good chance you will hear phrases that do not make literal sense, but which have their own unique meanings.
This article defines and gives examples of 10 idioms you will hear in almost any workplace. Whether you work in an office, a restaurant, a store, or outdoors, these 10 phrases are essential, and they are intended to help you learn English for work. Study them and practice them by answering the questions as you go.
1. be on the same page
to be in agreement with someone; to have the same understanding of something (a situation, a news story, a policy, etc.) as someone else
"Are we on the same page?"
"I need you to be on the same page as me."
"Mark and I are never on the same page. I think our minds just work differently."
"I think Donna deserves a raise." "Yeah, we're on the same page on that one."
Practice: Think about a time you weren't on the same page as someone at your job. What happened? (Answer prompt: "I wasn't on the same page with...when...")
2. be on the ball
to be alert, competent, and aware of what is happening (on a project, at your job, etc.)
"Ask Vikram to work on this with you. He's always on the ball."
"Sorry, I haven't been focusing on work lately. I need to get on the ball."
"Mika has been slacking this week. She needs to get on the ball."
"I don't think he's a good choice for this project. He's rarely on the ball."
Practice: Are you always on the ball? What do you do when you're not? (Answer prompt: "I'm usually/always on the ball. If I'm not, I...")
3. be on the fence
to be undecided; to not be committed to one side or another in a debate/situation/etc. (You can BE or STAY on the fence. If someone frequently takes the middle position in a debate, you can call them "a fence sitter.")
"What do you think we should do?" "Honestly, I'm on the fence."
"My boss is a fence sitter. I wish he was more decisive."
"Do you think we should do this?" "I'm on the fence. I think we need more details."
"You can't stay on the fence on this issue. I need your support."
Practice: When is it a good idea to be on the fence? (Answer prompt: "It's a good idea to be/stay on the fence if/when...")
4. break even
to not make money or lose money; a business situation where the costs are equal to the profits
"Did we make money on this?" "No, we barely broke even."
"This project has been a financial disaster. At this point, I just hope we break even."
"We spent a lot of money on marketing, but we managed to break even."
"Most companies don't break even in their first year of operations."
Practice: Would you rather break even and see minimal growth in your first year as a business, or lose money but grow the public awareness of your company?
5. go back to the drawing board
to go back to the planning stages of something (either because the current plan/project/product has failed or needs to be improved in some way)
"If we choose this course of action, we won't finish until 6 months from now." "Okay, so we have to go back to the drawing board."
"None of these ideas are financially feasible. Time to go back to the drawing board."
"What do you think we should do?" "Let's go back to the drawing board."
"This new hamburger recipe isn't very good. Time to go back to the drawing board."
Practice: Can you think of a time when you had to go back to the drawing board? (Answer prompt: "Once, I had to go back to the drawing board when...")
6. 24/7 (twenty-four seven)
non-stop; all day and all night; all the time
"They're open 24/7."
"Our web servers run 24/7."
"I've been thinking about work 24/7 lately. I think I need a break."
"The two district managers don't get along. They argue 24/7."
Practice: Do you know anyone who thinks about work 24/7? (Answer prompt: "__________ thinks about work 24/7."
7. better late than never
it is better to do or complete something late than to never do or complete it
"Mia's here." "Better late than never, I suppose."
"I finally submitted that report. Better late than never, right?"
"The boss finally approved my vacation request." "Better late than never."
"You're late, Jin." "Better late than never, boss?"
Practice: Do you have a similar phrase in your own language? Can you think of a situation where you would use it at work? (Answer prompt: "I would say 'better late than ever' if...")
8. be ahead of the game
to be in front of your competitors in the same field/job/etc., or to be further than someone else in something
"Jack's always ahead of the game."
"I have already made 10 sales this week." "Wow. You're way ahead of the game!"
"If we want to be successful, we need to stay ahead of the game."
"Apple has always tried to stay ahead of the game."
Practice: How can you stay ahead of the game at your job? (Answer prompt: "I can stay ahead of the game by..." [verb+ing])
9. (a) piece of cake
easy; not difficult
"How was the meeting with the client?" "Piece of cake."
"Are you sure you can handle this?" "Don't worry. It'll be a piece of cake."
"How was the exam?" "A piece of cake."
"You really need to focus and learn this. It's not a piece of cake."
Practice: What is something that is a piece of cake for you? (Answer prompt: "[verb+ing] is a piece of cake for me.")
10. call it a day
to end a period of activity; to stop working at the end of your workday
"Okay, everyone. Let's call it a day. See you tomorrow."
"I'm exhausted. I think I'm going to call it a day."
"You've been staring at that monitor so much today that your eyes are red. I think you should call it a day."
"Stop what you're doing. It's time to call it a day."
Practice: What time do you usually call it a day at work? (Answer prompt: "I usually call it a day at/around...")
That's all for now! All of these idioms are from the book 200 Practical English Idioms. It has over 1000 example sentences and only high-frequency idioms. I wrote it with English students and teachers in mind. Pick up a PDF, e-book, or paperback copy and let me know if it helps you.
Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.