Idioms add colour to your written and verbal communications.

Brushes and paints
Idioms add colour

An idiom is a phrase or expression that has two meanings: the literal and the figurative or symbolic. Using idioms in moderation can make your written and verbal communications more interesting and can bring even dull subjects to life. Here are some common idioms, used in business and general conversation, their literal and figurative meanings and example of how they can be used effectively.

To hit the wall or to hit a brick wall

The literal meaning of this phrase is to come to a stop after colliding with a solid object, as you would if you ran into the wall of a building.

Figuratively, in sport, you’re said to hit the wall when you run completely out of energy and can no longer perform effectively. In business, any obstacle or setback that prevents you from completing a task causes you to hit the wall.

Some examples to show how the phrase can be used:

“We tried to get an accurate valuation of their assets but, when they refused to hand over their financial statements, we hit the wall.”

“Our presentation would have been ready by 10.00am but we hit the wall when the server crashed.”

“I was just about to sign the deal but when the client wanted delivery tomorrow, I hit the wall.”

It would be fair to describe this idiom, along with several others as casual English, so it’s most suitable when used with people you know well.

A No Brainer

A decision that’s so obvious, no brainpower needs to be wasted on thinking it through:

“The city office did the most sales, so they get the award; it’s a no-brainer.”

“When it’s raining heavily, it’s a no-brainer, drive with your lights on.”

“There’s a storm over the airport. It’s a no-brainer that the client will be late.”

This also borders on casual language but is acceptable in most circumstances. Care should be taken not to be too critical when using this phrase. For example:

“You can’t wear that to the boss’s dinner, that’s a no-brainer.”

This is a clear insult to someone who has picked out something to wear that you believe is inappropriate. On an occasion like that, it’s better to avoid the idiom and say:

“I never know what to wear to functions like this. Are we too casual, too formal – what do you think?”

Throw In The Towel/Threw In The Towel (Past Tense)

When a boxer wishes to retire from a fight, his trainer will literally throw a towel into the ring. This is a signal to the referee to stop the fight.

In business, you can use the phrase to describe the act of giving up an activity in which you believe failure is the only outcome. It’s similar to hitting a brick wall, the main difference is that the decision to quit is yours, and not forced upon you by circumstances beyond your control.

“I wanted to study for my Master’s degree, but when I realised I lacked the analytical skills, I threw in the towel.”

“He was lobbying for leadership of the industry association, but when he didn’t get enough votes in the first round, he decided to throw in the towel.”

“We’ve been arguing with head office about this for weeks. If we don’t get a result soon, I’ll throw in the towel.”

This is another idiom that should be used with care in formal situations and can also be used in an aggressive way:

“So sales have been slow for a few weeks Joe. Don’t tell me you’re going to throw in the towel?”

Here, the speaker is implying that Joe doesn’t have the skill or the courage to keep trying when things get difficult. Joe would be offended by this, especially if he had no thoughts of giving up.

Cut Corners

To do something in the quickest, easiest or least expensive way without worrying about the effect on quality.  Its exact logical origin is uncertain but it probably derives from the act of driving around a bend in the road without following the curve in an effort to save time.

“I think we should cut some corners here. Putting all these ingredients into the product is hurting our profits.”

“There’s no way you can increase the output of this department unless you’re prepared to cut corners.”

“We must spend more time on research. You can’t cut corners on a project like this.”

Raise The Bar

Think of sports like the high jump, show jumping and the pole vault. To increase the difficulty, simply increase the height of the obstacle. The figurative meaning is identical except there’s not usually a physical barrier involved. The intention is to improve standards of quality or service.

“We were flooded with applications for the job so we decided to raise the bar and consider only those who had at least five years’ experience.”

“I think we should raise the bar John. Let’s go and find some investors who have really big money to play with.”

“You’ve raised the bar in your department, Catherine?  Your people are working much smarter now.”

English is a language that is so rich in idioms that they can fill a 500-page dictionary. This is a subject we’ll be visiting frequently.

When you write something that sounds a little too formal or stuffy when you read it back, look for an idiom to replace the offering words.

The Collins COBUILD Idoms Dictionary is worth keeping by your side.

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