by Marc Anderson

Dotting My i’s and Crossing My t’s – Getting Those Business Idioms in Order

Child using a tablet

Day #1 Need to write yet another blog to generate lots of buzz for the TalktoCanada.com site.

Day #2 Still thinking about a topic and finishing up some other projects. Guess I have a lot on my plate right now.

Day #3 I’ve been reading a lot about business idioms and how much they are used.  My gut tells me that I better decide about a continuation of this English blog and soon.

Day #4 Today I got to thinking, why did I have to be such a yes man?  You know… I could have passed on this whole blog assignment.

Day #5 The end of the month is coming.  And I’m going to have to work down to the wire because I still don’t know what I am going to write about.

Day #6 Yet, another email from a manager about the blog thing.  Now I know it’s crunch time.  She wants the article by tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning!

Still Day #6 or should I say Night #6 Here are my choices — at least the way I see it.  Face the music and tell everybody that I just don’t have the writing done yet or start to pull one’s weight and just do it.

Night #6 11:13 p.m. I’ll be right back.  I’m making another pot of coffee.  Now what was it that my track coach always said? Something like nothing ventured, nothing…let me see. Nothing ventured, and nothing gained.  That’s it! And he would tease me to stop passing the buck.  Then, I say that it’s time that I got a big raise (okay, at least a little one) and some added vacation time (I’ll take another day or two) so I better score brownie points for coming up with a blockbuster idea for this blog.

Night #6 or should I say morning of Day #7 4:36 a.m. Okay…I’m still thinking. I’m still awake. I’m making another pot of coffee. I’ve got my eye on the prize.   I can do this. (Don’t we all say that after grad school?)

Day #8 4:58 a.m. Well, mum’s the word but I think I’m on to something.  Being half asleep and half worried that I could even submit something by morning, I was not paying too close attention to really what I have been saying all along.  These are business idioms I have been using.  There are just so many of them in the English language and I take them for granted. But, you know if you have not grown up around them, it must be mind boggling at times.  So you know, forget this climb the corporate ladder stuff.  I think it’s best just to honestly tell you what some of these business idioms are so you don’t have to keep jumping through the hoops and you can rest a little in this dog-eat-dog world. Okay.  Okay.  It’s time to write. Time is at a premium.  The article is due in about 3 hours, at 8:00 a.m. sharp.

Let’s see, a title.  Just read about sticky copy, so how about…Working the Kinks out of Words or Time for a Reality Check Idioms worth Knowing or maybe even Shaping Up (not) Shipping Out! Okay, so maybe these are pretty lame.  Come on, think some more.  Oh, okay then. I know the perfect title, here goes.

Dotting My i’s and Crossing My t’s – Getting Those Business Idioms in Order

You know I’ve decided to try to really pay attention to the details of my job so when my co-worker contacted me about a week ago to write a continuation about the blog I Thought Old English Was Dead? – The History of the English Language, I thought “Sure, why not?”  After all, I like writing.  I try to be creative. Reality check.   I need the work. I need to keep my job.  So it wasn’t a hard sell.

Then I remembered something I heard from one of our online teachers.  Apparently the lesson’s focus was the importance of knowing idioms, expressions and the vocabulary used in other countries.  One student gave an example of the word “torch” and how she was asked to bring this along to do some volunteer work  in Northern Ireland.  She imagined a welding torch spitting out a long flames or a glass blowing torch helping carve a sculpture but didn’t really know what that would have to do with setting up a youth center.  When it was revealed that a torch was just a flashlight, all she could say was “If only I had known”.

I don’t want you to have to say that.  I want you to know.  I am convinced that if you learn a few common business idioms and expressions, that you will feel a whole lot better about studying English. It will give a boost to your confidence.  And when the time comes you will do a whole lot better understanding these idioms and using them and doing better on your job, too.

There are about 350 business-related idioms and expressions in the English language.  My suggestion is that once you hear some of these, it might pay to jot them down and then see if you can figure out the meaning. Try to remember how the idiom or expression was used.  As a former reading teacher, that is called context clues.  Context clues help you determine or at least narrow down the meaning of words.  You might read some idioms in the daily paper or a magazine, even online or you might hear them when you least expect it, like on television or at the movies.

So let’s get started.  Do you remember my week leading up to finally being able to write this article?  Well, let’s go back a little.  When something generates a lot of buzz, this expression means that people are talking a lot about it.  It is usually in a positive way.  For example, the new technology gadgets generate a lot of buzz like the one I just read about.  Okay, okay, I know, I know.  I should be writing this article.  But I needed an example.  Have you heard about the Tsir Tech universal wrist band gadget charger with the built-in battery for your Ipod Touch, IPad, IPad 2, IPhone 4/4SMP3/MP4, PSP, NDS, Samsung, Nokia, LG, HTC, BlackBerry 10?  I’m sure that is getting a lot of buzz. The gadget has a polymer and wristwatch design with a no load and a time off function to save energy and its alarm will remind you when it needs to be charged.


Even though I like to eat, having a lot on my plate right now has nothing to do with eating.  It means having lots to do or too much to do.

My gut tells me doesn’t mean your gut (i.e. stomach) is talking to you. It means that you have a strong feeling about something.  You could say my gut tells me that this new idea is going to really work or my gut tells me that it’s going to be a high sales day, etc.

If you are considered a yes man that is someone who agrees with the boss or does everything the boss says to do.  In my experience, it is not all bad to be a yes man, most of the time.  After all, you aren’t the boss.

Working down to the wire means working until the last minute or working just until deadline.  This expression came from the 19th century when the racetracks in America had a piece of wire across the track, right above the finish line.  The wire helped decide which horse crossed the line first.  So if the announcer said, “the race is down to the wire”, it meant that the race was very close.

Crunch time has nothing to do with the word crunchy or with a bunch of sit-ups that are also called crunches. It just means a short time period that you have to get something done and if you’re like me, probably a shorter amount of time than you would like.

You know I love music, but face the music has nothing to do with notes and songs and instruments.  To face the music means to admit there is a problem and to deal with it.  For example, you might need to face the music in that to get that assignment finished you can’t go out and you will have to stay up late to do it.  Believe me, I know all about that.

I have been trying to exercise more and get back into running.  But, pulling your own weight has nothing to do with those pounds I’ve have been packing on.  This expression means to do your share of the work.  Maybe you could use this expression if you have a roommate or two, or if you are married.  Just say it gently and with a smile, like let’s get this done now so everyone should pull their own weight.

I bet you have all heard someone say that you need to try to succeed.  Well, that’s really what nothing ventured, nothing gained means.  You have to try to move ahead.  It’s not okay just to sit there.  It’s better to try and not do as well as you thought, than not to try at all.

And now back to that track coach.  When it was hard to run those extra laps or to run hills for track, my coach would shout, “Don’t pass the buck!  Get a move one!  Come on, you can do it!”  He meant that you needed to take responsibility yourself and for you not to blame anyone else.  Once he sat us all down and even explained this expression.  He told us that it came from an early game of poker in the nineteenth century.  A knife with a buckhorn called the buck was passed to the dealer when it was his turn to give out the cards. I think of that every time I play poker.

Day #8 6:07 a.m. Okay, I am well on my way to getting those brownie points.  Just two more hours and I can crawl back into bed right after one final spell check and pressing submit.  Oh, yes, brownie points.  You know, not brownies the dessert that you eat but getting credit for doing something good.  Apparently this expression came from Girl Scouts and the younger troop called Brownies.  They do certain things to earn badges.  These are called Brownie points.  Now if you use the expression as adults, it is more like teasing. Like I will leave my boss a note and say that if this article gets a lot of buzz J then I deserve some brownie points.  And if I am brave, I’ll ask for that raise and vacation.

A blockbuster means a big success or a huge hit like if you sell a great product or use a clever marketing strategy.  Those would be blockbusters. The term comes from the blockbuster bombs used during WWII.  The British Royal Air Force is credited with using these huge bombs that were very explosive.  So if you have a blockbuster product or strategy or idea, it means this creates a big impact or explosion!

You know, you can’t really keep your eye on the prize.  It might be a little hard to do or a little uncomfortable.  But this expression really means to stay focused until you have completed whatever it is you needed to do.  You should not allow distractions to get in the way of your goal.  So right now you might be thinking that studying English is too difficult and you might be wondering about if it is worth it or not and you are letting these distractions and small problems get in the way.  If you keep your eye on the prize, you will become more confident in English and your English skills will soar!  And in the end it will all be worth it.

Mum’s the word means that you have to really keep a secret, no matter how hard that may seem.  No, not even one word to your best friend.  When the boss says that mum’s the word, you need to keep quiet about it.  It might be a new product or a new project or a grant that you company is trying to get that you don’t want competitors to know about.  The word mum comes from the muffled sound you make when your mouth is shut and you try to make a noise.  Okay, go ahead and try it.  Close your mouth tight and hold your lips together.  Now, try to talk.  Do you hear the “mmm” sound?  It is impossible to talk for once, isn’t it?

Climbing the corporate ladder means to move up and advance in your career.  Maybe you get more responsibility or maybe you get more salary.  So this expression means you that you need to work hard and be diligent and productive so you look good in front of your boss.  You just might get that promotion!

Any time you feel that you must go through a lot of difficult steps or work to get something accomplished, this means you are jumping through hoops.  Sometimes, it is a series of unavoidable obstacles that you just have to do.  There is no other way out.  Perhaps you feel learning English is like jumping through hoops.  Think of it this way.  At least you are jumping! Remember the more you practice and the more you study, the more you will learn and the more you will improve.  We all have to jump through hoops now and then.

A dog-eat-dog world means the world is cut-throat and hard.  You need to look out for yourself.  This expression comes from the 1500s.  Wild dogs were fighting over a bone.  Someone said that people, like these dogs, often compete aggressively to get what they want.  So it is a dog-eat-dog world.  It does not mean that canine is on the menu.  It just means that things in life are competitive.  It is just part of living.

You might have heard the word premium before like premium gas for your car or you will pay a premium for soccer tickets in the club seats.  Well, at a premium means at a high price.  So if your company sells something and the product is just released, then the customers might be able to purchase that product at a premium.  In other words, newer products generally cost more before the item is on the market for awhile. Think about DVD players or flat-screen televisions.  When they first came out they were selling at a premium, but now the price is much lower.

Working the kinks out of means taking care of the problem or smoothing it out or in the case of the “almost title” Working the Kinks Out of Words means explaining and clarifying some of the confusion behind business idioms.  A kink is a problem or flaw in a system or plan so it would be straightening these out so you understand English better.

With all of the reality television shows, knowing the expression reality check may not be too hard to decipher.  You need to think realistically about the situation.  So if you decide to sell so many products by a certain date, you have to ask yourself is that really possible?  That’s the reality check.

Shape up or ship out means you need to improve or (unfortunately for you) it might be time to leave.  You might get moved to a different project or worse yet, (unfortunately for you) you might get fired.  This expression was first used in the US military during WWII.  It meant you need to behave yourself (shape up) or you will be sent overseas (shipped out) to a war zone.

Dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s means you need to pay attention to details and how something works.  To have a perfect writing, you need to make sure you have indeed dotted the letter “i” and crossed the letter “t”.  It means you must be careful.  So if you are an accountant and the boss says to make sure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s when you are completing the annual report, it means that you must be turn in a polished, flawless report.

So that brings me to the last idiom.  Hard sell means an aggressive way of selling something.  Did you ever go somewhere where the salesmen put on the pressure for you to buy something?  Maybe they kept coming over to you to explain the sale or the special deal.  If someone uses an aggressive way to sell something opposed to a soft sell with little or no pressure, then that is the hard sell.

Day #8 7:49 a.m. Hooray, I think I am going to make it! Just an ending, copy and paste some resources, do one quick read through, spell check and post.

So now you know the history behind and the meaning of some very common US business idioms.  I hope your understanding and use of some of these goes through the roof! And I hope that my co-workers feel I plugged TalkToCanada.com enough and I really, really hope that this article helps drum up some business about the online learning programs that TalktoCanada.com has to offer.  So don’t keep this stuff you learned under wraps; i.e. (Don’t) keep it under wraps. In other words, don’t keep these idioms secret.  Use them!  Tell others about them!  Share this blog!

And please write! Write and tell me a business idiom you have recently used.  Come on. Don’t keep it under wraps! Now it’s almost time to catch up on my sleep after I send this, of course, and ask for that raise.  I just might ask for that vacation after all.

Day #8 8:00 a.m. Sent.  Z-Z-Z-z-z-z

Further Reading Resources

Check out these links that I used to write this article and learn more business idioms to be even more successful as an English speaker. I hope you fast track this suggestion.  Don’t forget to touch base with me soon.

http://www.idiomconnection.com/business.html for business idioms that are broken down into lists dealing with all facets of business to include accounting, banking, meetings and sales.

http://www.englishcurrent.com/idioms/workrelated-idioms-list-business-english/ for a useful listing of work-related idioms

http://www.goenglish.com/Idioms.asp for English expressions and idioms used in businesses around the world

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.