‘Ahead of the pack,’ ‘smooth sailing,’ ‘corner the market.’ English is full of idioms like these three I just mentioned. In order to be able to work, study, or live in a native English speaking environment, understanding and comprehending idioms is a vital skill! For that reason, this episode will introduce you to some common idioms that are especially useful for business situations. However, they will also be beneficial to anyone who wants to study abroad, understand English TV shows or movies, or even just enjoys studying languages!

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To accelerate (v) – to move more quickly, or to make something happen faster or sooner

He accelerated rapidly to pass a car!

Glitch (n) – a small problem or fault that prevents something from being successful or working as well as it should 

The system has been plagued with glitches ever since its launch!

Initiative (n) – a new plan or process to achieve something or solve a problem

The government launched their new education initiative last week!

To blink (v) – when you blink, you close and then open your eyes quickly once or several times, and when an eye blinks, it does this

You’ve got something in your eye – try blinking a few times!

Standard (n) – a level of quality 

This essay is not of an acceptable standard – do it again!

Manufacturer (n) – a company that produces goods in large numbers

Japan is a major manufacturer of vehicles!

Towering (adj) – very high or very great

The baseball player hit a towering home run!

Howling (adj) – (of wind) blowing hard and making a lot of noise

The hurricane’s howling winds just missed the island!

Gale (n) – a very strong wind

Hundreds of old trees were blown down in the gales!

Now i’m going to introduce you to some of the most common, useful, and interesting idioms that we often use in business situations! SO without any further ado, let’s get into the lesson!

Ahead of the pack

Imagine you are in a race; a foot race, car race, horse race, so on. Most of your competition are racing at the same speed, and consequently they are grouped together; bumping shoulders but never leading for long. Another term for a group is a ‘pack; so let’s call the group of your competitors the ‘pack.’ Suddenly you find some extra energy which allows you to accelerate rapidly and overtake all of your competitors. You are now ahead of the pack! In business, to be ahead of the pack is to be more successful than the competition; to be more successful than other people who are trying to achieve the same things as you! In terms of online retailers, Amazon is way ahead of the pack! If you want your company to stay ahead of the pack, you might need to embrace change and invest more in marketing! Other similar idioms include ‘lead the pack,’ ‘ahead of the game,’ and ‘ahead of the curve.’ 

Back to square one

If you are back to square one, you have to start something over again because a previous attempt failed. Your previous plan completely failed, so you need to start working on a new one. What are the origins of this idiom? There are actually a few different theories. One popular theory in the UK is that the phrase originated from BBC radio broadcasts (specifically football broadcasts or soccer if you prefer American English). More convincingly are the connections to games. For example, in the board game Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders in the USA) if you land on a snake or chute you will have to return to an earlier square. Alternatively, if you fail the popular schoolyard game hopscotch you also have to start over! Sometimes to make your ideas work, you need to go back to square one! If you’re a computer programmer and your software programme has a glitch, maybe you need to go back to square on to fix it! If an important business deal collapses, you’ll have to go back to square one!

Corner the market

You’ve probably heard of the noun ‘corner,’ (or if you haven’t it is a place or angle where two sides or edges meet). Slightly less common is the verb ‘to corner.’ ‘To corner’ means to force a person or animal into a place or situation from which it is hard to escape. The person or animal doing the cornering is powerful, dominant and in control. It is also possible to ‘corner the market.’ If a company corners the market in a particular type of product, it is more successful than any other company at selling that product. Alternatively, it can also suggest that a company has the ability to control the available supply of a type of product or the ability to sell it! Thinking about online search engines, Google has certainly cornered the market!

Get something off the ground

If a plan or activity gets off the ground or you get it off the ground, it starts or becomes successful. In business, this especially means to start a project, new company, or an initiative. This idiom originally refers to flight – if an aircraft gets off the ground, it is certainly successful! There is a difference between a business idea which never gets off the ground and one which suddenly goes bad. Often large amounts of money are required to get certain ideas off the ground. In addition, it can take a lot of hard work to get something off the ground. Hopefully, one day soon this podcast will get off the ground!

In a nutshell

Nutshells are usually tiny. In that case, what could you fit inside a nutshell? Probably not much! So if i asked you to put some ideas, answers, or responses into a nutshell, those ideas, answers or responses would have to be really small! Thus, the idiom ‘in a nutshell’ means using as few words as possible. Imagine your business is struggling. If a close friend or advisor asks you how your business is going, how would you answer? You could spend a few minutes explaining all of the details of your problems. Or, you could say, “in a nutshell, the business is struggling and we will run out of money soon.” If you want to ask a question but don’t want a long answer, you could ask the question “Can you tell me in a nutshell?” If you want to tell a story in brief, you could start by saying “I won’t tell you the whole story, but in a nutshell…”


Of course, everyone has a brain. And we use our brains to think about things, make decisions, and so on. However, although sometimes we know we are using our brains, sometimes we don’t actually realise! We don’t think about breathing, blinking, the movement of our bodies when we are walking. We use the idiom ‘no-brainer’  to describe something that is really obvious or easy; something that we don’t really need to think about! It just makes sense! If a friend of yours offers you free tickets to watch your favourite sports team, it is a ‘no-brainer’ to accept them! Or making money as an investment banker is so easy that we can describe it as a no-brainer as well!

Raise the bar

I want you to think back to your high school track and field classes. Or if your school didn’t have this sport, think about the Olympic athletics events. Specifically, think about high jump and pole vault. These sports involve trying to jump over a bar. Every time you are successful, the bar raises a small amount with the purpose of finding the athlete who can jump the highest. This means that every time you are successful, there is a new goal. You are aiming for a higher target! Therefore we use the idiom ‘raise the bar’ to mean setting standards or expectations higher. The iPhone certainly ‘raised the bar’ for smartphone manufacturers. After the first iPhone, the target for all manufacturers was a much better product. If you have a very hard working employee, they might ‘raise the bar’ for the rest of the employees!

Smooth sailing

Have you ever been sailing before? I have only been on a sailing boat one time. During my year of secondary school in the UK, i went on a school trip to an outdoor activity centre and went on a sailing boat! Unfortunately, after only 30 seconds of sailing I somehow managed to fall off the boat and into the freezing cold lake. It most certainly wasn’t smooth sailing for me! Imagine your sailing a ship across the Ocean. If the weather is nice, there are no storms, and no large waves, it is a relatively easy journey; we call this smooth sailing. On the other hand, if there are towering waves, howling gales, and problems with your sailors, it is definitely not smooth sailing. Therefore, we use the idiom ‘smooth sailing’ for a situation where success is achieved without difficulties. If your business’s largest competitor goes out of business, it will smooth sailing for your company from then on!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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