20 Common Business Terms Explained for Non-Native English Speakers, PART 1

English is hard enough if it’s not your first language … and its business jargon is even harder. In this series we look at some of the most commonly used terms and what they really mean … in plain English.

(For direct links to the other articles in this series, scroll down to the bottom of this article.)


Want to write better for business in English? Here’s how

Analytics: a relatively new word for statistics. Usually refers to the statistics you get from systems that measure things like your website traffic, sales, clicks, etc

Annual leave: this means holidays, or vacation. Usually used by more formal businesses and professions because it sounds more, well, formal! Probably comes from Army jargon where being “on leave” is a term that has been used in several English-speaking countries for many years.

Ballpark figure: originally from the USA where in its popular game, baseball, the playing area is called a ballpark. Means an approximate figure, not an exact one.

Bandwidth: a term borrowed from digital technology and telecommunications. It means the capacity or ability to achieve something.

Blue sky thinking: thinking about what could be achieved if you didn’t have any business-based limits or restrictions, so you can be more creative – and possibly think of ways to reduce the limits or restrictions.

Champion: can now be used as a verb as well as a noun. As a noun, in business it means someone who takes on a project or other activity and is mostly responsible for it. To champion (verb), means to act as a champion (noun.)

Core Competency: basically, what you are best at doing in your work – or what your original training and experience is. Can also be used to describe the same thing but for a company or other organisation. Comes from the USA; the original word was “competence” but Americans like to make words longer! “Core” here refers to the centre/center of what you do.

Drill down: a phrase probably borrowed from carpenters or construction workers, from the word drill! Means to bring a discussion, meeting or conversation down to the very important basic points (without wasting time on things that don’t matter so much.)

Dynamic: this word has been used as an adjective for many years, but now is used as a noun as well. As an adjective, it means energetic or connected with a lot of activity. As a noun, it means the act of being energetic, but also can mean the type of relationship there is / relationships there are between two or more people, or two or more organisations. E.g., the dynamic of your relationship with your mother is different from the dynamic of your relationship with your boss.

Evangelist: this word is taken from the Christian religion where it is used to describe someone who preaches and promotes that religion to other people. Now the word is used to describe people in business and other non-religious activities who actively promote a way of doing things, a cause, a business objective, a charity, and so-on.

Low-hanging fruit: comes from the fact that (real) fruit which is growing low on the tree or bush is much easier to pick that fruit that is higher up and so more difficult to pick. Means to take advantage of business or other opportunities that are easy to win, perhaps to get a new project or business initiative started faster and more easily.

Multi-disciplinary: a term common in some governments, and in hospitals and other medical organisations. Usually refers to a group of people from several different professional specialities (“disciplines”) all connected by a common objective, meeting and working together.

On the same page: a nicer way of saying “we understand each other,” especially when people are not “on the same page.” Originates from books and reading.

Pathway: commonly used medical term in the UK and other countries – once again a nicer way of saying “process.” In the medical context it means the process a patient goes through from their first visit to the local doctor, on through hospital and the system until treatment has been completed. Also used in non-medical activities.

Reinvent the wheel: the English language is full of these metaphors! This term refers to the huge achievement humans enjoyed when the wheel was invented. Now, in business it usually is used in a negative way to say something isn’t worth bothering about very much – e.g., “we need to review our system, but we do not need to reinvent the wheel.”

Solutioning: this is a new verb based on the noun “solution.” I’m not sure who turned it into a verb but I think it must be the USA! It means the act of making a solution to a problem or other issue.

Synergy: Dictionary.com describes this noun here. That sounds very confusing especially to someone who is a non-native English speaker. The word “synergy” is used a lot in business and in my experience describes a good relationship between you and someone else you meet in business. If you want to use a French word, try “rapport.”

Touch base: another term borrowed from the US game baseball. Touching base, in baseball, means to get to, and touch, whichever base you – as the player – want to stand on. In business, all it means is to contact someone.

Upskill: a silly new word that means to get more training, or to provide more training for your staff, so that business skills have improved, or are improving.

Value add: another silly and probably ungrammatical phrase that may come from the UK’s “value added tax.” Here though, it means, simply, to add value to a project, scheme, business plan or many other things.

Some other ways to help you write better for business in English

If you’re not a native English speaker but want to work and write better in English, this is the series for you.

To read Part 2, click here

To read Part 3, click here

To read Part 4, click here

To read Part 5, click here

To read Part 6, click here

To read Part 7, click here

To read Part 8, click here

There is much more business writing help ready for you here on HTWB

And just take a look at the useful resources you can find here…even if your business English isn’t that good – yet!

Questions? Drop Suze a note on suze@suzanstmaur.com.