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10 Ways to Politely Ask for Clarification in English

10 Ways to Politely Ask for Clarification in English

Whether you're meeting with a foreign client, seeing a doctor, or taking an online English lesson, there will be times when you don't understand what the other person just said.

Today, we'll introduce 10 polite English expressions for requesting clarification.

1. What do you mean by ... ?

Sometimes, the best way to ask someone for clarification is to directly ask them, "What do you mean by ... ?" A slightly more polite version of this phrase is "I'm not sure what you mean by …."

  • Sorry, what do you mean by that?
  • I'm not sure what you mean by "formal dress code." Could you show me some examples?

2. I don’t understand.

Another way to ask for clarification is to let the other person know that you didn't understand them. You can do this by saying "I don't understand" or "I'm not sure I understand."

  • Sorry, I don't understand your question. Would you mind rephrasing it for me?
  • Hmm, I'm not sure I understand. Could you explain that again?

3. I’m (a little) confused.

Instead of saying "I don't understand," you can also just say "I'm (a little) confused."

  • Sorry, I'm confused. Should I take this medicine three times a day or four?
  • I'm a little confused about what you just said.

4. I don’t (quite) follow.

Another way to say "I don't understand" is to say "I don't follow" or "I'm not following."

  • Hmm, I don't quite follow you. Could you explain that to me again?
  • I'm afraid I'm not following. Could you be more specific?

5. You mean ... ?

Telling your conversation partner what you think they meant is an effective way to ask for clarification. You can do this by saying "You mean ... ?" which is short for "Do you mean ... ?"

6. As in ...

An alternative to "you mean ... ?" is the phrase "as in ... ." This means "in the sense of ..." or "meaning ... ."

7. So you're saying ... ?

"So you're saying ... ?" means "So you think that ... ?" or "So you mean ... ?"

8. If I understand you correctly ...

"If I understand you correctly ..." is a slightly more formal way to check your understanding.

  • So if I understand you correctly, you feel that you were unfairly fired from your job?
  • Let me see if I understand you correctly. You're saying that this policy would create 10 million new jobs?

You'll also hear native speakers say "If I understood you correctly." Both the past and present tense are acceptable.

9. Could you elaborate (on that)?

When you ask someone to "elaborate on" something, you're asking them to explain it in greater detail, which is another good way to ask for clarification.

  • Sorry, could you elaborate, please?
  • Could you elaborate on that for me? I'm not sure I follow.

10. Could you break that down for me?

If you "break something down," you separate it into its parts. So if you ask someone to "break down" something they said, you ask them to explain it part by part.

  • I think I know what you mean, but could you break that down for me?
  • Could you break that down for me? How much money did he steal and who are all the victims?

Try These Expressions in a Real Conversation!

If you're reading this post, you probably want to improve your English conversation skills, and the best way to do that is by having actual conversations. It's even better if you can have conversations and get corrected by a professional English tutor!