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University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations - Business English Certificates:

There are three BEC exams - BEC Preliminary, BEC Vantage and BEC Higher, which test English language ability used in the context of business. They are ideal if you are preparing for a career in business. The BEC exams are linked to the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and to the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's National Standards for Literacy, within the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).

List of Business English Idioms

Choose an idiom and click on it to
go directly to the explanation and example.


Across the board, at a loss


bail a company out, ball park figure/estimate, bang for the buck, banker's hours, bean-counter, big gun/cheese/wheel/wig, bottom fall
out/drop out
, bottom line, bottom out, boys/men in the backroom, break even, budget squeeze/crunch, buy off, buy out, by a long shot


calculated risk, captain of industry, carry over, carry the day, carry through, close out, close the books, cold call, come on strong, company man, company town, cut back, cut corners, cut off, cut one's losses


deliver the goods, double-check


face value, fair play, figure out, fill the bill, finger in the pie


gain ground, get a break, get off the ground, give someone the green
, go public, go through with


hard sell, heads
will roll


in black and white, in charge of, in short supply, in stock, in the
, in the long run, in the market for, in the red, in the works


jack up


keep books, keep track of, kickback


make a go of, mean business, number-cruncher


on hand, (buy) on credit, on the block


pay off, piece/slice of the action


red ink, run short


saddled with debt, sell like hotcakes, sell out, strike while the iron
is hot
, sweetheart deal


take a nosedive, take on, take over, take public, take stock, throw
cold water on
, throw money at something, tight spot, turn over


work out, write off

across the board

MEANING: including everyone or everything


The computer company decided to give the workers an across-the-board
increase in their salary.

at a loss

MEANING: sell something and lose money


We were forced to sell the computers at a big loss.

bail a company out

MEANING: help or rescue a company with financial problems.


The government decided to bail out the failing bank in order to
maintain stability in the economy.

ball park figure/estimate

MEANING: a rough estimate or figure


The contractor gave us a ball park figure for the cost of repairing
the new building.

bang for the buck

MEANING: value for the money spent


We were able to get a big bang for our buck when we advertised on the

banker's hours

MEANING: short work hours


My sister's husband owns his own company and is able to work banker's
hours with his large staff.


MEANING: an accountant


We asked the bean-counters to look over the figures in the new budget.

big gun/cheese/wheel/wig

MEANING: an important person, a leader


The new director was a big wheel in his previous company but is not so
important now.

bottom fall out/drop out

MEANING: to fall below an earlier lowest price


When the bottom fell out of the coffee market many companies had to
stop doing business.

bottom line

MEANING: the total, the final figure on a balance sheet


When they examined the bottom line of the company they decided not to
invest in it.

bottom out

MEANING: reach the lowest or worst point of something


The value of the stock has begun to bottom out and should soon begin
to increase in value.

boys/men in the backroom

MEANING: a group of men making decisions behind the scenes


The boys in the backroom told us that we must close down the factory
as soon as possible.

break even

MEANING: have expenses equal to profits


After only three months the company was able to break even and start
making profits.

budget squeeze/crunch

MEANING: a situation where there is not enough money in the budget


We have been going through a severe budget squeeze at our company and
must begin to stop spending money in a wasteful manner.

buy off

MEANING: use a gift or money to divert someone from their duty or


The land developer tried to buy off the politician but he was not

buy out


MEANING: buy the ownership or a decisive share of something


The company was bought out by another large company in the textile

by a long shot


MEANING: by a big difference, by far


The soap company was able to beat out the bids of the other companies
by a long shot.

calculated risk


MEANING: an action that may fail but has a good chance to succeed


They took a calculated risk when they introduced the new computer
screen onto the market.

captain of industry

MEANING: a top corporation officer


The president of our company was a captain of industry and after he
retired he was appointed to many government boards.

carry over


MEANING: save for another time


We were forced to carry over the sale to the Monday after the national

carry over

MEANING: transfer (a figure) from one column or book to another


Our company is still facing difficult times and we will have to carry
over last year's losses to this year.

carry the day


MEANING: win completely


The president's new idea carried the day and everyone supported him

carry through


MEANING: put into action


The steel company carried through their plan to restructure all of
their operations.

close out


MEANING: sell the whole of something, sell all the goods


They decided to close out the store and sell all of the remaining
stock very cheap.

close the books


MEANING: stop taking orders, end a bookkeeping period


They usually close the books at the end of February every year.

cold call


MEANING: call a potential customer from a list of persons one has
never seen


When he first started to work at his company he was asked to make cold
calls using the telephone book.

come on strong


MEANING: overwhelm with excessively strong language or personality


The salesman came on too strong at the meeting and angered the other
members of the team.

company man


MEANING: a person who always works hard and agrees with his employees


My father was a true company man and was always putting in an extra
effort for his company.

company town


MEANING: a town dominated by one industry or company


When the coal mine closed down the company town faced severe economic

cut back


MEANING: use fewer or use less


The company has been cutting back on entertainment expenses for over a
year now.

cut corners


MEANING: economize


We have been forced to economize on stationary expenses during these
severe economic times.

cut off


MEANING: interrupt or stop


The speech of the president was cut off when the electricity went off
in the building.

cut one's losses

MEANING: do something to stop losing money or something


We should sell the old machinery as soon as possible and try and cut
our losses.

deliver the goods


MEANING: succeed in doing well what is expected


The new owner of the company is not very popular but he is able to
deliver the goods.



MEANING: check something again to confirm


We were unable to double-check the costs of the new products before
the price list was printed.

face value


MEANING: the official worth or trust of something


Although the face value of the postage stamp was very low it sold at
the auction for much money.

fair play


MEANING: justice, equal and right action to someone


The company is very good to work for as they always use fair play when
they are bargaining with their employees.

figure out


MEANING: find an answer by thinking about something


Everyone in our company is trying to figure out what our boss is going
to do with the new equipment.

fill the bill


MEANING: be just what is needed


That new machine should fill the bill as to what we need to finish the

finger in the pie


MEANING: involved in what is happening, receiving money for something


The new manager has his finger in the pie in all aspects of our
company's business.

gain ground


MEANING: go forward, make progress


Our company has been gaining ground in our attempt to be the best in
the industry.

get a break


MEANING: get an opportunity or good deal


We were able to get a break on the price of the paint and saved a lot
of money.

get off the ground


MEANING: make a successful beginning, go ahead


We were unable to get the new product off the ground and will have to
wait until next year.

give someone the green light


MEANING: give permission to go ahead with a project


Our boss gave us the green light to begin work on the new sales

go public


MEANING: sell shares of a privately owned company to the public


The stock of the Internet company rose very quickly when they went

go through with


MEANING: finish, do as planned or agreed


We have decided not to go through with our plans to launch the new
product until we have solved all of its problems.

hard sell


MEANING: sell something by being very aggressive


The car salesman gave us a hard sell so we decided to go to another

heads will roll


MEANING: someone will be punished


Heads will roll when our boss learns about the money that we have lost

in black and white


MEANING: in writing


The company refused to deal with the customer's complaints until they
saw them in black and white.

in charge of


MEANING: in control of, responsible for


My sister has been in charge of buying supplies at her company for
many years.

in short supply


MEANING: not enough, in less than the amount or number needed


Experienced computer programmers are in short supply at our company.

in stock


MEANING: have something ready to sell or use


They didn't have any computer printer ribbons in stock at the store.

in the black


MEANING: successful or making money


The new company has been in the black for over a year now.

in the long run


MEANING: in the final result


The company has been losing money recently but in the long run they
should do very well.

in the market for


MEANING: ready to buy something


We have been in the market for a new computer for a long time but
still we haven't bought one.

in the red


MEANING: losing money, unprofitable


The company began to go into the red when the price of oil began to
rise rapidly.

in the works


MEANING: in preparation, being planned or worked on


The camera company has a new automatic camera in the works but nobody
knows about it yet.

jack up


MEANING: make a price higher


The steel companies decided to jack up the price of steel at the
beginning of the year.

keep books


MEANING: keep records of money gained and spent


The new assistant to the sales manager has no experience keeping books
and has made many mistakes.

keep track of


MEANING: keep a count or record, stay informed


They have been making a great effort to keep track of the number of
visitors to their store.



MEANING: money paid illegally for favourable treatment


The construction company was taken to court for giving kickbacks to
the local politicians.

make a go of


MEANING: produce good results, succeed


Although he works very hard in his small business he has been unable
to make a go of it and may soon go out of business.

mean business


MEANING: be serious


Our boss means business when he tells everyone to try and work harder.



MEANING: an accountant, someone who works with numbers


Our president is a good number-cruncher and understands about the
finances of our company.

on hand


MEANING: in one's possession, ready


We didn't have any supplies on hand and were unable to finish the job.

(buy) on credit


MEANING: buy something without paying cash


My friend had no money so he decided to buy the furniture on credit.

on the block


MEANING: for sale


As soon as they purchased the company they began to put some of the
equipment on the block.

pay off


MEANING: make a profit, be successful


The furniture manufacturer was unable to pay off their loan and had to
go out of business.

piece/slice of the action


MEANING: a share in the activity or the profits of something


The inventor wanted a large piece of the action of the profits from
the new computer that he had invented.

red ink


MEANING: debt (red ink on a financial statement)


The automobile company has been drowning in red ink since the US
dollar began to rise.

run short


MEANING: not have enough in quantity


They ran short of gasoline at the gas station and had to close early.

saddled with debt


MEANING: burdened with debt


Our sister company is saddled with a great amount of debt and should
be sold as soon as possible.

sell like hotcakes


MEANING: sell very quickly


The children's toys were selling like hotcakes at the end of the year.

sell out


MEANING: sell all of a product


Every year at least one company sells out all of their products which
frustrates many customers.

strike while the iron is hot


MEANING: take advantage of an opportunity


We decided to strike while the iron was hot and began to market the
product around the time of the Olympics.

sweetheart deal


MEANING: a deal made between friends so that both may make a big


We were able to make a sweetheart deal with our landlord and got the
rent greatly reduced.

take a nosedive


MEANING: collapse, fail, decrease in value


The stock market took a nosedive when the earnings of the oil company
began to weaken.

take on


MEANING: to give a job to or hire someone


The company took on many new workers during the busy holiday season.

take over


MEANING: take control or possession of something, take charge or


The government decided to take over the bank after it declared

take public


MEANING: sell shares in a company to the general public


We decided it was necessary to take our company public in order to
raise money to expand our facilities.

take stock


MEANING: count the items of merchandise or supplies in stock, take


The department store closes down for 3 days every March in order to
take stock.

throw cold water on


MEANING: discourage, forbid


The managers threw cold water on the plans to close down the factory
for one week in August.

throw money at something


MEANING: try to solve a problem by spending money on it


The president of our company is willing to throw a lot of money at the
problem in the hope of solving it.

tight spot


MEANING: a difficult situation


The computer manufacturing company has been in a tight spot since the
shortage of computer chips appeared.

turn over


MEANING: to buy and then sell something to customers


The turn-over at that discount store is very rapid.

work out


MEANING: plan, develop


I spent the weekend trying to work out the budget estimates for next

write off


MEANING: remove from a business record, cancel a debt


It was impossible for the bank to collect the money so they were
forced to write off the loan.

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