How to Ask for Clarification in English without Saying “What?!”

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Do you ever misunderstand what is said to you in English?

Native and non-native English speakers alike occasionally don’t understand what is said to them, and they are forced to ask for clarification.

However, doing so can be tricky, as simply asking “What?” can appear to be brusque (harsh, rude).

If you’re looking for other ways of asking somebody to repeat what they’ve just said, read on for some helpful tips.

How to Ask for for Clarification in Casual Settings:

When you’re with your friends, at the supermarket, or ordering a pizza, there are several informal ways that you can ask for clarification.

1. Sorry?

The most common usage of the word “sorry” is to express regret or apology. However, in conversation, you can also say “Sorry?” as a gentle way of asking “What?”. Make sure to use a rising intonation at the end, like you are asking a question — otherwise, it will sound like you’re apologizing!

2. What was that?

Okay, so this does use the word “what” — but the extra two words make it much softer

3. What did you say?

Again, the extra words provide a softening effect. Importantly, English speakers tend to combine their words when pronouncing this phrase. The first three words — “What did you” — blend together, and thus the phrase ends up sounding like “Wha-ju say?”.

4. Come again?

This is a very casual way of asking somebody to repeat what they’ve just said (hence “again”).

How to Ask for Clarification in Formal Settings:

When you’re in the office, on a conference call, or dealing with people in a formal or  professional setting, there are several polite ways to ask for clarification, as well.

1. Pardon?

This is effectively the same as saying “Sorry?”, but using a more formal register.

Again, make sure to use rising intonation at the end, so it sounds like a question.

Note: “pardon” can also be used as a synonym for “excuse me” when you need people to move out of your way (e.g., in a crowded train).

2. I beg your pardon?

The meaning is the same, but the extra words add a bit more formality to the phrase.

3. Could you say that again, please?

Sometimes, being straightforward is the best strategy.

Including “please” at the end adds an element of politeness. 

3. I didn’t quite catch that. Could you please repeat?

Here, the verb “catch” is used not in a literal sense (e.g., catch a ball) but in a figurative sense — it’s synonymous with “understand”.

4. Could you give me an example?

If somebody’s ideas simply aren’t coming across (being understood) to you, you can ask him or her to provide an example.

Hearing a real-life example may help clarify tough or confusing concepts.

When you’re learning English, it can be frustrating when you don’t understand a native speaker.

But don’t worry: it’s a very normal part of the learning process, and most native speakers are very understanding.

Don’t be ashamed of asking for clarification; rather, make the best (find something good in something unpleasant) of the situation: use it as a way to learn what English sounds like spoken in real life.

Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities to practice your listening skills.

Try listening to what singers are saying in English-language songs — and then check yourself by looking at the lyrics.

Watch clips from English-language TV shows on YouTube or Netflix, and pause when you need a moment to think.

Monitor your progress by taking an English listening test every few months to see how much you improve!

Even famous English-speaking celebrities like Marilyn Monroe sometimes get confused and need to ask questions! Indeed, asking for clarification is sometimes necessary.

This article will help you be prepared the next time you need somebody to repeat something, and will provide you with plenty of alternatives to asking “What?”.

Readers: how do you ask for clarification? What would you add to this list?

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Paul is an English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups.

You can check out their free English level tests and other resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact [email protected] with any questions.

Photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/officialgdc/5058378176/

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