June 14, 2015

10 American English Idioms Commonly Used at Work

The below list highlights a small subset of idioms that could be used at workplaces in the USA. 

Go Into Battle 

Some may also say ‘This office is a battle zone.’ People use this when they are confronted with a new job, a series of familiar tasks that are overwhelming, or parts of a task that are challenging in some way or the other. Generally, Americans use this phrase to build up excitement over difficult or undesirable jobs as well. The spirit is ‘Yes, the job is hard, but we will not only meet the expectations but, we will exceed them. We will win.” 

Make you sweat 

Again, this is not meant to be taken literally. Though we may actually sweat when we are under pressure or ‘in the battle zone’, this idiom implies that there is a stress factor involved in the tasks that lay ahead of us. They will make us think or challenge us. But, again we shouldn’t shy away from them just because they are hard. 

Keep an eye on it 

This implies that we have to watch something carefully. In this episode, the undercover boss had to carefully watch machinery and products to make sure they were not being wasted.

Leave it to the professionals
This idiom implies two things. The first meaning is to allow those who are better trained with more experience do the job. The other meaning has a sarcastic and condescending tone. The implied meaning is “You are not doing this job well. Your performance doesn't match other professionals with the same training. We don’t have patience with you. We will allow those better than you to take over.” If an employee hears this, as an American, he or she may feel sad, offended, or inept.

Write up 
A ‘write up’ is something an employee avoids. When an employee does bad work, is not performing up to expectations, breaks the rules, has problems with other employees, or has a bad attitude, the manager can ‘write him up’. This is a permanent written complaint put in the employee’s file that explains why he or she was misbehaving on the job. Employees want to avoid being written up. In some companies, there is a rule that a particular number of write ups can lead to suspension or loss of job (fired) depending on the situations for which one is written up.

Take your break 
No, no one is breaking anything! A break is a short time away from the normal duties of work when an employee can chat with others, have something to eat or drink, and relax a few minutes. Breaks are a predetermined amount of time and may vary depending on rules or convenience (may be 10 minutes). Taking prolonged and frequent breaks may be a cause for a write up. 

Keep in mind that the area one takes a break in or outside an office building is called a "break room" or "break area". In Kerala, India many companies call this space a "pantry" because it may also sell food. If you go to the US, and want to go to the "pantry" in the office, use the term "break room" as Americans do not use the word "pantry" in the office.

Cooped Up
Feeling “cooped up” implies being confined to a small space doing the same job over and over again. I think this idiom is derived from ‘chicken coops’ or small cages in which chicken are kept. Employees feel caged like a ‘chicken in a chicken coop’ hence, are ‘cooped up.’

Letting people go
This is a euphemism for firing someone.

Watch your attitude
This idiom will be told to a person with a bad attitude. “Watching your attitude” is nothing more than “controlling your behavior” and not showing frustration or negativity.

Built for an office job
Being “built for” something means “suited for” something. Or, in another way, we can say based on that person’s skill and personality, he will perform better in another role.

Author, Jennifer Kumar helps prepare Indian teams to work more effectively with American counterparts.

Chris Sufi is a freelance editor who lives in Bangalore, India. Her personal interest in language and communication inspires her to contribute through proofreading and editing. She can be contacted here.  

Related Posts:  
Making Small Talk and Conversation with Americans 
Other ways to say "In the Loop" 
Conversation Connectors in English 


  1. Hello Jennifer, Great blog and I like the way you described all the idioms. While I am familiar with almost all the idioms, I did not know what Write-up actually meant since we use it everyday in our work to refer to articles and content we put together when we do some sort of new client prospecting.

    On a different note, I specially agree with you on the sad state of subtitles that are being aired on almost all television channels with English content. Sometimes they are very misleading and sometimes they are downright hilarious..

    Talking of English subtitles on Indian TV channels, I couldn't help but extract an excerpt of a blog that I wrote a while ago.
    Here it goes...

    "And by the way, one very distinct and rather absurd thing I noticed while watching the movie ''In and Out' on HBO this morning was that while it had its usual dose of English subtitles (which seems to be the norm of the day for all those ambitious English movie channels broadcasting across a nation of predominantly non English speaking audience especially from Cooch Bihar), there was never a subtitle of the word ‘ Gay’ during the entire duration of the movie in spite of the fact that there must have been a thousand times this word would have been spoken throughout the film. In a country that ‘seems’ to have become upwardly mobile, progressive and liberated with recent Bollywood hits like ‘Dostana’ being made and so much media buzz created around the whole LGBT hype, what damage were the censors trying to prevent by knocking off the word Gay from the subtitles when that’s the actual and essential fun element of the film. I don’t get it and neither will those clueless viewers in Cooch Bihar."

    Here's a link to the actual blog:

    I will stay tuned to read more interesting stuff from your end. Good Luck with your Authentic Journeys venture.
    Regards, Shekhar

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments, Shekhar.

    I am glad you shared your reason for visiting this blog as you reminded me that the term 'write up' has two meanings! In your case, write up would have a different meaning! In your case, I believe it's more like 'to write up a draft'. Could you share a sentence, statement or question used in your office with the term 'write up' in it? I don't want to mislead you!

    And, that translation and subtitle you shared is really amazing! I know the censors avoid so many not so harmful words, but then allow some other more harmful words in. It makes me wonder who is doing those subtitles anyway? :)

  3. Jennifer, thanks for approving my comment and responding to my thoughts.
    On write-up, here's a recent email exchange I had with my colleague Scott Isard. We were discussing a write-up that described our services to prospective clients in the US.


    I was constantly critical of the old appendix because of several reasons namely:
    1) The write-up was very dated and some of the technologies it talked about were obsolete like say Vista
    2) There was a lot of redundancy in the write-up itself with several of the bullets repeated which does not fly well with prospects who have a keen eye for detail
    3) Some of the services like say ‘Migration’ is no longer relevant

  4. Shekhar, when I looked up the definition, a 'write up' is a "written description of someone or something". In one sense "being written up" for job performance, probably has negative connotations, but in the case you describe the "write up" is referring back to a particular written account of something, maybe your company's services. It could have referred to a document, e-mail attachment, product manual or descriptive narration. In this case, 'write up' has no connotation (positive or negative) at all, as it is a generic way to refer to whatever written material you are to be reviewing. I hope this makes sense.

    For instance, we can say this blog post is a "write up" of idioms used at work.
    We can say your comments to me are "write ups" of your feedback on my blog post.

  5. "Could you please give me a write-up of your last project?" ... these kinds of statements I make almost every day, which I believe I got this usage from my past managers. Didn't know it got a different meaning too. Thank you :)

    Dictionary says - http://www.thefreedictionary.com/write+up

    write up

    1. To write a report or description of, as for publication.

    2. To bring (a journal, for example) up to date.

    3. To overstate the value of (assets).

    4. To report (someone) in writing, as for breaking the law. wrote him up for speeding.

  6. Praveen, this is a great point. Yes, the meaning depends on the context. I am glad you printed the other definitions here. I think the one I referred to is close to #4.

    Maybe the use is dependent on context, and it can be related to the regional use of English in the US as well.


Authentic Journeys: Work Effectively With Americans

Do you work with Americans on a global, virtual team? At Authentic Journeys we help you build your context with American business culture when you work with Americans from outside the U.S.A. Follow our blog our get in touch with us for live, in-person online training programs to increase your business acumen with Americans today!