What to say in English when you don’t understand or are confused?

You will inevitably be confused and uncertain at times when you are learning a language. This is natural and not something to worry about. It’s all part of the learning process. However, you need to be able to communicate your confusion. As soon as possible, you should aim to acquire the ability to express this lack of understanding clearly and naturally.

In this article, I outline some key phrases you should use to express your lack of comprehension. Using them will assist you in making your English more natural. They will also impress examiners, so are vital for those taking IELTS, First Certificate or other English language exams. Here are some very useful phrases you should try to learn asap (as soon as possible) to help you when: you don’t understand, need someone to repeat, need clarification, and when you can’t answer a question. 

I don’t understand

Using the phrase “I don’t understand” may accurately convey your message, but it’s not very sophisticated. You need to try to use different expressions to get this message across.  More sophisticated (and more natural) expressions include:

Sorry, I’m not with you 

I don’t follow

I am sorry, but I don’t follow what you are saying

I (just) don’t get it!

I’m completely lost!

To be honest, I’m completely confused

You will notice that two of these expressions use the word sorry. Particularly in British English, it’s common to apologise, even when you haven’t done anything wrong!

The final expression begins with ‘to be honest. Using ‘to be honest’ is a good way to indicate to the person you are speaking to that you are telling the truth about your own opinions or feelings, especially if you think these will disappoint the person you are talking to. “To be honest, the meal was terrible”; “to be honest, I feel terrible today; I don’t think I can work today”. 

Repetition

Can you repeat? 

Though this is clear English, it doesn’t sound very natural. It sounds more like something a police officer might say if you were being interrogated! More natural phrases would include: 

Could/can you say that again please? 

Using could make this a little bit more formal and polite.  This phrase is a bit long, so is best used when greater clarity is required in general conversation; shorter phrases are more appropriate, including:

Say again 

Come again 

The phrase ‘say again’ is very natural, and you will hear it used widely by proficient users of English and native speakers. In contrast, ‘come again’ is a little more informal but still widely used. You should get used to using them. 

Requesting clarification 

The person you are speaking to may use a word or phrase you are unfamiliar with. This may happen in a class; your teacher may use language that is new to you. If so, to request clarification, use a phrase such as:

What does X mean? 

Be careful with this one and avoid the common mistake: “what means X?”). The structure of ‘What does X mean?’ is typical of many questions in English in which the interrogative (the ‘question word’; where, when, who, why etc.) is followed by an auxiliary verb-do, does, are, is etc. So, learning this question well will help your grammar and your question formation. 

 

What exactly do you mean by X?

 

I don’t know

When you don’t have the answer, saying “I don’t know” is fine. However, one way of impressing with your English is to use a range of expressions. You should always try to expand your language and have alternative ways of saying the same thing. So alternatives to “I don’t know”, include: 

 

I’ve no idea 

I haven’t a clue / I haven’t got a clue

I haven’t the foggiest (idea)

 

The phrase ‘I haven’t the foggiest (idea)’ is an idiomatic phrase that comes from the weather condition fog. Fog is a cloud that touches the ground. Fog can be thin or thick, meaning people have difficulty seeing through it. If you are outside on a very foggy day, you will have very limited vision and might not know where you are. 

 

In informal spoken English, ‘I don’t know’ often becomes, because of connected speech,  ‘dunno’. Dunno is the type of word you should only use with friends and those you know well, but is 

 

The expressions I’ve recommended in this article will be very useful for you. 

They also contain within them some important features of English grammar (such as the appropriate use of auxiliary verbs in questions) and pronunciation. 

 

There are many contractions in the phrases, something students often struggle with when speaking English.  At higher levels, students often remain reluctant to use contractions. Some  students feel they are informal and therefore not good English. In truth, good spoken English includes many contractions. Learn how to use contractions correctly by using the phrases recommended in this article.

 

Parts of this article are adapted from:

  1. Ellis, ‘Classroom Language’, English Teaching Professional,  Issue 127, March 2020.