English Language Blog

Ways to Say You Don’t Understand Posted by on Sep 10, 2020 in English Language

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay, CCO

In English, when you are presented with something that you don’t understand the most normal thing to do is tell someone, “I don’t understand.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.” However, we have lots of ways to express that same feeling. And, depending on the situation, another expression may be more suitable.

Whenever a language learner experiences a moment when they don’t understand something, often the first impulse is to be embarrassed. No one wants to look ignorant or to feel left out. Sometimes the impulse is to pretend to understand. Well, that doesn’t help, because the problem remains – you still don’t understand. So, let me assure you, the best thing to do is to let people know. Trust me, almost everyone loves to explain things!

Let’s say that someone you are with is speaking and they are either talking so quietly, or too quickly, that you didn’t really hear them. In English, we would say, “Pardon me?” This is a somewhat formal and very polite way of asking them to repeat themselves so that you can understand their words. Another formal response would be, “Could you repeat that, please?” Other, more casual ways of doing this might be by saying,

  • Excuse me?
  • I’m sorry?
  • “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

These are far more preferable to the ever-popular, “Huh?”

Or, perhaps you are in a conversation and someone in the group uses an idiom or phrase that you are not familiar with. You might casually say, “I’m missing something.” Or you could say, “That’s one I’ve never heard before.” Or, “That went completely over my head.

More formal expressions could be

  • “Would you mind explaining that?”
  • “ Sorry, but I didn’t get that at all.”

There are also times when someone is giving you instructions or trying to teach you to do something, and the concepts are unfamiliar or unclear. It may have nothing to do with your understanding of English. As you know, people aren’t always good at explaining things. You need to politely ask them to better explain it to you. Try to avoid asking them to repeat themselves, because if you didn’t understand it the first time it’s likely the second time won’t be any clearer. They need to say it differently. Also, ask in the present tense.

  • “What do you mean by…?”
  • “Would you please clarify that for me?”
  • “Could you be a little more specific, please?”

Finally, there are those times when something seems illogical. You are in a situation in which something just doesn’t make any sense to you. It’s sometimes hard to admit that you don’t understand why something is happening. But that’s when you most need to, as we say, push the pause button. Stop and tell someone that you are confused, and why.

  • “There’s something I can’t get my head around.”
  • “This doesn’t make any sense to me.”
  • “What is this all about?”

Avoiding confusion is the best way to avoid a mistake or even an accident. If you don’t understand something, ask.


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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.


  1. Susana:

    I’ve been reading your posts for several months if not at least a year. It’s high time I thanked your useful work. Having said that, congratulations and thank you very much.
    Have a good and and a better week.

    • Gary Locke:

      @Susana Thank you, Susana.

  2. Bruna:

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    Congratulations for all work!!!

    • Gary Locke:

      @Bruna Hi Bruna! I’m happy that we can help!