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048 Idioms and expressions for talking about failure

Idioms for talking about failure


Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of The Art of Business English, this is Andrew Ambrosius here again for another useful and inspiring episode.

Today I have a not to be missed episode. We often associate business with success and winning and all the great things that come with building an empire and making lots of money. This is the wonderful side of business that everyone aspires to reach.

One the other hand, what about failure. As Robert F Kennedy once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” On the path to success there are so many train wrecks along the way. With every new idea there is always a big chance of failure. However, remember, it only takes 1 idea out of a thousand to be a success for you to make it big.

Making it big sounds great, but today, we are talking about failure. The train wrecks and disasters on our path to greatness.

Got a project that is going down the drain? Have an employee who is a complete disaster? Got a business idea that has turned into a major headache? If that sounds familiar, then check out today’s episode where we explore idioms for talking about failure.

As always, I have divided this episode into the follow parts:

  • Firstly, we will be looking at collocations for talking about failure.
  • Then in the second part I will cover some adjectives for failure.
  • Thirdly, I want to share 6 expressions you can use informally to talk about failure with your friends or colleagues. These phrases are not your everyday expressions and your probably haven’t heard them before.
  • To wrap things up I will be showing you some business scenarios where you can apply this vocabulary in your everyday working life. Plus, I’ll give you some tips on how to learn them and put them into practice.

Make sure you download the free PDF to help you study.

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Right, let’s kick things off by looking at some collocations. 

Idioms and Collocations for talking about failure


I think it is important to quickly review collocations for those who may need a refresher. As you may know, collocations are words in English that naturally go together. Many common collocations are formed using make and do. Some examples of these are, “do your homework” and “make arrangements”.

It is also important to note that there is a distinction between weak and strong collocations. Weak collocations for example are, “take a break” and “have a break”. The verb is different but both collocations mean the same thing.

Stronger collocations on the other hand are fixed in nature. You can’t modify the verb. Most collocations are strong, meaning they are fixed expressions. An example would be, “do the dishes”.

Due to the fixed nature of collocations they must be learnt by heart. We don’t associate grammar rules with collocations, so they must be acquired either through direct study, or indirectly through contact with native people or reading. I always encourage my students to read as much as they can, this is a great way and, in many cases, a free way to improve your English.

OK, now that we have that little definition out of the way, let’s take a look at some collocations. As always, I will give you the expression and then my attempt at the Spanish translation. If the translation sounds a bit weird then drop me an email to let me know the correct one. But hey, I’m not a native Spanish speaker and I don’t care, I just get on with it and that is what you should be doing with your English.

So, first one,

To fail miserably.Fracasar estrepitosamente
To dash someone’s hopesDestrozar las esperanzas de alguien
To lose one’s nervePerder los nervios
To fail completelyFracasar completamente
A mediocre performanceResultados mediocres
A total lack of remarkable achievementsUna falta de logros notables
A spectacular failureFracaso espectacular
To be a recipe for disasterSer una receta para el desastre
To be way off the markEstar muy equivocado
To be doomed to failureAbocado al fracaso
As a last resortComo a último recurso
To get off on the wrong footEmpezar con mal pie
Losing your edgePerder tu toque
Throw in the towelTirar la toalla
Let it slip through my fingersDejarlo escapar entre los dedos
Close, but no cigarCasi, pero no.
 Fool’s errandAbsurdo/tontería
This will never flyNo ir a ninguna parte
To get the better of youDejar que te afecte
To go up in smokeDeshacerse en humo
To fall to piecesCaerse a pedazos
To go down the toilet Desvanecerse


OK, now that we have looked at collocations, let’s turn our attention to some adjectives for describing failure.

Remember, adjectives can help you to better describe a situation, so you can put more emphasis on the type of failure.

In the following part I will give you the adjective and then I will share an example with you.


Adjectives for talking about failure


absoluteThis is an absolute failure! We’ll have to start all over again.
colossalThe company made a colossal failure hiring him. He has no experience!
catastrophicYour idea has been a catastrophic failure. I hope you have a better one.
biggestThe biggest failure was firing the only one who know how to manage the department.
humanIn our company there’s no room for human failure
inevitableThis was an inevitable failure. We should just go on.
massiveThis massive failure will set the company back two months!
spectacularThe spectacular failure of her rival’s company made hers grow even more.
completeIt would have been a complete failure if not for her.
minorThis was a minor failure; we can still make the deadline.


So, from this list you can see how we apply adjectives and collocate them with the word failure to describe the degree or severity of the failure. Remember, due to the nature of how some words can work together with others, not all adjectives will work with failure. For example, an entire failure does not collocate, however a complete failure does. So, even though entire and complete are synonyms, they don’t always collocate with the same words.

Let’s move on to the third part of this lesson.


Colloquial expression for talking about failure


In this part we are going to be looking at six colloquial expressions that you can use in less formal situations. It is important that you understand them in context if you are to use them correctly. To help you out, I have provided the translation.


A dead duckCausa perdida
A lose-lose situationUna situación donde ambos pierden.
To go pear shapedSalir mal
It’s all gone Pete Tong (The title is a reference to a cockney rhyming slang phrase used in Britain from the 80s to present day, referring to the BBC Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, standing for "it's all gone a bit wrong." The film was released on April 15, 2005)Todo ha ido mal
To fall flat on your faceCaer de bruces, fracasar totalmente en un intento
My plans have gone to shitMis planes se han ido a la mierda


There you have it, six colloquial expressions you may have never heard before.

Let’s wrap things up and look at a few of these expressions in context.


Expressions for failure in context


I’ll give you the situation, then the expression and then I will give you an example sentence which I hope will help you to better understand the context and meaning.


SituationExpression Context
SocialisingTo fail miserablyOur 5-a-side football team failed miserably in last week’s match. We are the worst team in the whole league.
MeetingTo go down the toiletI can see our entire investment in this project going down the toilet.
Mentor discussionTo get the better of youNow Mike, don’t let your emotions get the better of you. You must remain level-headed.
Business development discussionTo slip through one’s fingersWe can’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers, it will put us at a distinct disadvantage over our competitors.
AnalystTo be way of the markAfter having undertaken our analysis of the current situation we realise that we are way of the mark. Instead of having made a profit, the company is actually down 10% on this time last year.


Before I go then, let’s just quickly cover how we can study, learn and internalise these expressions. Well, one of the best ways would be to listen to this episode a few times. Repetition is one of the most effective ways to learn new things.

Secondly, you can download the cheat sheet from the episode at the AOBE website. I have put all the expressions from today’s episode there, you can then review 5 expressions a day.

Finally, if you want to internalise these expressions then you are going to have to start using them in your everyday English. By that I mean, make a conscious effort to use at least 3 of these expressions this week in you next conversation, phone call or email. Remember, if you want to check that you have understood them in the right context, just send me an email with your sentence and I will tell you if that is correct or not.


Final thoughts


So, there you have it my friends, an extensive list of vocabulary and expressions for talking about failure. If you have any questions regarding this list then drop me an email at [email protected]. If you are new to the AOBE podcast then please head over to www.theartofbusinessenglish.com/subscribe to sign up for free. You can listen to the AOBE podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher. Make sure you also sign up to our mailing list and be the first to know when we release a new episode.

Well, that is all I have time for today, I look forward to having you all back with me again next week. Till then take… bye for now.

Are you looking to expand your knowledge of English vocabulary and expressions? 

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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