Welcome to another article and video in our series of English expressions that will impress native speakers! Today we’re talking about the word: “What?” Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that there are times when you just don’t understand. And in English, the expression most learners know to express this is: “What?” Today we’re going to explain why you should stop saying “what” in these contexts. Plus, we’ll give you lots of other expressions to use instead to improve your English vocabulary.

Last actualization 09/04/2024


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If you prefer, you can also head over to our MosaLingua Language Lab podcast to listen to this article:

Listen to “#45 – Stop Saying “What?”” on Spreaker.


Expressions that Are Better than Saying What in English

So you’re learning English. Maybe you’ve even started talking to native speakers. That’s great! Now, it’s time to expand your vocabulary. Keep reading to learn ways to replace “what” in your vocabulary.

Neutral expressions

If you want to impress the people you talk to, there are some more “sophisticated” things to say when you really mean, “What?” For example, you could say:

  • Say again?
  • Say what?
  • Pardon?
  • Come again?
  • What’s that?

These phrases are short and very easy to remember. Just be sure to change your intonation (make your voice go up at the end) to turn them into questions. Simply saying “pardon” or “come again” in the middle of a conversation won’t make sense.

Something else you can say when you don’t hear someone well or can’t understand them is:


Americans are known for apologizing a lot, but this is a nice, neutral way to tell someone that you didn’t understand them. Plus, it’s always better to be too polite than not polite enough!

Polite expressions

Here are two more polite ways to say “What?”:

  • Excuse me?
  • I beg your pardon?

Just be careful with these two. If you say them impatiently or aggressively, people might think they have offended you or made you mad. Be sure to smile when you say them. 🙂

Very casual expressions

Here are two very casual ways to say “what?” You should only use among friends or family. Otherwise, they will come across as impolite:

  • Huh?
  • Hm?

(Watch the video below to hear the difference in how they’re pronounced.)

Instead of saying “Could you repeat that please?“…

As an English learner, you’re probably already very familiar with the phrase: “Could you repeat that?” But there are more idiomatic ways to say the same thing, implying that you would like the speaker to repeat themselves:

  • I didn’t catch that.
  • I missed that.

If you understand, but don’t understand

Sometimes you’ll understand the words, but not their collective meaning. For example, if someone uses an idiomatic expression, tells a joke, or makes a cultural reference that you don’t understand. Two appropriate expressions to help you out of this situation are:

  • I don’t get it.
  • I don’t follow.

Is It Wrong to Say What in English?

Now that you know lots of alternative ways to say “What?” in English, you might be wondering what the problem with “What?” is. After all, it’s direct, and it gets the message across. I want to be clear: saying “What?” is better than not saying anything at all. Sometimes, you might feel like you’re inconveniencing the person you’re speaking to by admitting that you didn’t understand and asking them to repeat themselves. But don’t be shy! If you just smile and pretend like you understand, you might run into trouble later on in the conversation. Plus, you’ll miss out on a learning opportunity. So it’s best to be honest, and if “What?” is the only expression you know, it’s okay to say it.

However, “What?” is very blunt. It’s not the most polite. And depending on who you are talking to, it could be taken the wrong way. It’s important to adapt to the context of the conversation you’re in. If you’re just chatting casually with an English conversation partner, it’s totally fine to say. But if you’re dressed up for a job interview at a big company, try to avoid it.

If you forget all of the expressions you just learned, your body language – a quizzical look or a tilt of your head – can help you in a pinch. But, to make sure you do remember these during your next conversation, add a few of them to your MosaLingua learning stack and memorize them with our Spaced Repetition System.

WATCH: Abbe’s Tips – Stop Saying “What?”

By the way, this is Part 2 of our Express to Impress series, where we introduce new English expressions that can make your vocabulary more precise and engaging. If you haven’t already seen Part 1, about how you need to stop saying “hello” and “goodbye,” watch that one next!

For now, though, scroll down or head over to our YouTube channel to watch our English teacher Abbe explain all the expressions you learned in this article. It’s in English, but there are subtitles in 6 different languages (French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, and English). Feel free to click the gear icon to slow the video down, too. Enjoy!


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What expressions will you try out next time you don’t understand somebody in English? Let us know in the comments below!