Stop Saying “What?” Use Better English Responses


Hey there! So in today’s post, we are gonna talk about hefud glarth min fingle schake!

What? What?? Whaaaat? You should be confused with the previous sentence because it doesn’t mean anything!

But if you find yourself saying “what” every time you don’t understand something, you might be surprised to learn that it can be a little rude or impolite! SO today I’m going to give you some better, more natural ways to express in English that you didn’t understand, and ask someone to repeat something!

There are a variety of different ways to do this depending on whether you are face to face, talking over the phone, being formal or informal…so make sure you watch the whole video to find out which phrases are used for which situations! And if you like this post, comment down below which terms you think will be most helpful in your English journey!


Better used for a phone/video call

So I want to start with the phrase that can be in any situation, with anyone any time! Its I’m sorry. Now maybe you heard the way I said that…with a rising intonation..that’s important! Imagine I’m on the phone with my bank because I lost my credit card…if I didn’t hear what the person said, I can simply say “I’m sorry?”

Make sure you do NOT have a falling intonation…this will represent a feeling of sadness and empathy.

The best thing about I’m sorry is that it can be used on its own, or in front of ANY of the terms in this post! 

Instead of saying what when on the phone, you can be polite by asking “could you repeat that (please)?” (phone number example) For added politeness/friendliness you can add I’m sorry! I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Don’t forget the rising intonation! The great thing about could you repeat that is that it can be added to the END of any of the other terms! That gives it clarity and structure to your expression.

Another common expression to use on the phone is to not catch something. “I didn’t catch that”. This phrase can help you sound more natural and fluent, and I use it all the time, so I definitely recommend learning this one. So now you have three phrases..all which could be used together! 

I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that, could you repeat that, please?


A little bit less formal when on the phone or video..

The last term which is more useful on the phone, but a bit more informal, is I didn’t get that. If you’re saying this, you’re probably talking to a friend or peer, so there’s no need for extra formality!


Expressions that are better face-to-face

Now, for some more natural ways to say “what” in person! The following are a bit more formal and what I would say to someone I don’t know!

This is the one I use most often when I am on the street just wandering around listening to music! I will see someone say something to me, and I’ll remove my headphone and say “excuse me?” Notice the rising intonation…again very important! This expresses friendliness…if I said it with falling intonation, it would seem like your irritated with them!

Another totally common phrase is “what was that?” If I’m in a library looking at a book, and someone asks me a question that I didn’t quite hear…I would “what was that? Again, notice the rising intonation…this is how you express friendliness 🙂 

Pardon me? This is a still a bit formal, and I think it’s more used in British English…(accent) but you’ll still hear it in the USA, especially in the south! And with a southern accent, it might sound like..

“Que te gustaria hacer este fin de semana?” Come again? If you speak Spanish, you probably understood what I said, but if not you can say “come again?” and this would tell me that you didn’t understand and for me to repeat 🙂 It is quite casual and natural so don’t be afraid to use it!

Lastly, is the most informal, in-person term… it’s Huh or hmm. If I was driving in the car with a friend with the windows down, and I couldn’t hear what he said, I can say huh? This is better situations where volume is not a problem..hmm is better when you need to be a classroom or in a library!

Alright, so that wraps up today’s lesson…I hope you caught all of that! If you have any questions you can ask in the comments below..
So if you made it this far, you are wonderful, thank you!! If you liked this lesson you may like this similar post about how to respond to the question, “what are you up to?”

Anyway, that’s all for today’s lesson. Hope to see you next time! I’m outta here. Peace. Later. Ciao.



Picture of Gabby Wallace, M.Ed TESOL

Gabby Wallace, M.Ed TESOL

About the Author
Gabby Wallace is the Founder of Go Natural English, where you can quickly improve your confidence speaking English through advanced fluency practice. Even if you don't have much time, this is the best place for improving your English skills. Millions of global intermediate - advanced English students are learning with Gabby's inspiring, clear, and energetic English lessons. Gabby has a Masters Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Boston University and 20+ years experience helping students become fluent through her online courses and membership program.

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