It happens to all of us. You’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend, colleague, or even a stranger on the street, and you say something that just comes out wrong.
Oops! What now?
Maybe you used the wrong word or expression.
Maybe you lost your train of thought or forgot what you were saying.
Maybe you got distracted by something happening around you.
Or maybe you just needed a little more time to come up with the words to express yourself clearly.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a native speaker or not – if you’re having conversations in English, at some point you’re going to need to clarify what you mean.
In this article and video, you’re going to learn the best way to signal that you need a little more time to clarify your thoughts, as well as useful expressions you can use to restate or rephrase your ideas.
You’ll also find out what to say if you realize there’s been a misunderstanding and you need to explain your ideas another way.
Why You May Need to Clarify What You Mean
Like I said a moment ago, you may have chosen the wrong word, gone off track with your ideas, or needed a few more moments to come up with the right way to express your thoughts.
Perhaps you accidentally said something that could be interpreted as offensive or rude, when that actually wasn’t your intention.
Or perhaps you saw that the person you’re interacting with looks confused and you realized that your idea wasn’t entirely clear.
Whatever the reason, you can use these conversation skills to show the other person you need to keep talking and subtly ask them to be patient while you find the right words.
Identify That You Need to Clarify Your Idea
First things first, you should identify that you need to clarify your idea.
As soon as you realize that you’ve made a mistake when speaking, you should admit that you’d like to try explaining yourself again.
These phrases I’m about to share tell your listener that you recognize you’ve made a mistake, and you’d like them to give you a chance to try again.
First, let’s talk about a common expression that I use pretty frequently in my own conversations:
Sorry, I lost my train of thought.
“Train of thought” is an idiom that we use to explain how we connect different concepts, or the reasoning behind our ideas.
When you say you’ve lost your train of thought, the other person immediately understands that you were trying to express a certain point, but for some reason you got off track and now you need a moment to gather your thoughts.
You can even say that:
Just a moment, I lost my train of thought.
Here’s a related expression to handle this situation:
One second, I need to gather my thoughts.
I need a moment to get my thoughts together.
These expressions clearly signal to your listener that you’re still searching for the right words.
When you say this, you’re asking for their patience as you decide what to say instead.
You’re admitting that you know you may not have expressed yourself really well, and you’re asking for a little opportunity to fix it.
You end up sounding more natural and more fluent because you’re taking charge of the situation.
You’re going to go back and fix your mistake, rather than waiting for the other person to ask for clarification.
Admit That You Didn’t Say The Right Thing
To admit that you didn’t say precisely what you wanted to say, try one of these expressions.
(Be sure to watch the video to practice saying these expressions along with me!)
- Sorry, that didn’t come out right.
- That came out wrong.
- That’s not what I meant to say.
These phrases are especially helpful if you’re concerned that what you said could be misinterpreted or misunderstood as inappropriate or rude.
It’s a good idea to admit that you didn’t say the right thing, rather than just hoping the other person didn’t notice.
You can also use these expressions when you just feel like you weren’t that clear, or you chose the wrong words, or you want to find a better way to express your idea.
Continue With What You Were Saying
When you’re ready to continue what you’re saying, try one of these expressions:
- Let me try that again.
- Let me start over.
- Let me rephrase that.
- Let me explain that again.
- Let me restate that.
- Let me start that again.
We use the phrase “let me” at the beginning to acknowledge that the listener is being asked to wait.
This phrase can be seen as a small apology to your listener.
It shows that you understand that you’re asking for their patience as you reframe your thoughts.
You’ll also hear people include their listener by saying something like this:
Let’s try that one more time.
I often say this with a smile when I have trouble getting the words to come out right.
Like I keep saying, it’s often better to acknowledge that you weren’t quite as articulate as you wanted to be!
Clarify What You Meant to Say
Once you’ve told your listener that you’d like to try expressing yourself another way, it’s time to clarify what you mean.
You’re going to restate your original thoughts in different words.
But first, introduce what you’re about to say with one of these phrases.
They signal that you plan to say things differently this time:
- What I mean is…
- What I meant was…
- Let me put that another way.
- What I’m trying to say is…
- Let me explain myself again.
- In other words…
These expressions are often used to buy ourselves a little more time to think when we’re having trouble getting the words to come out right.
They can also be helpful when you’re giving a presentation or leading a meeting and you want to repeat your ideas in another way to make sure people understand.
This also works when you think the other person looks confused, or you simply suspect that they didn’t understand you.
Restate The Same Idea In Slightly Different Words
The next step is to repeat your same idea in slightly different words in order to emphasize a key point, or ensure that the other person understands you.
You’ll notice I do this a lot because I want to make sure you follow what I’m saying!
When you confidently use these expressions, you show that you’re able to take control of the situation, fix your mistakes, and keep that conversation flowing.
Clarify a Misunderstanding for Your Listener
Now let’s talk about what you should do when the other person tells you that they didn’t understand you.
At times you’ll need to clarify a misunderstanding.
Maybe you didn’t use the right words, didn’t pronounce the word correctly, or your idea wasn’t clear.
(There are many reasons that you may have to handle a misunderstanding in English.)
The other person may try to clarify what they heard or ask you to repeat yourself.
If the other person explains what they understood and it wasn’t exactly what you meant to say, use one of the following expressions to clarify.
They’re polite, professional ways to clarify a misunderstanding and explain what you really meant.
This way you show that you understand you may not have been perfectly clear and that you’re going to do your best to express yourself better this time.
Pay Attention to Your Intonation When Clarifying What You Meant
Pay attention to your intonation here.
You want to show that you’re open to hearing when you’re not clear, and that you’re happy to try expressing yourself another way.
If your intonation is too flat, your pitch is too low, or you have too many steep drops, it may sound like you’re annoyed.
For example, let’s try this expression:
That’s not exactly what I meant.
To sound polite, you want to keep your intonation friendly and approachable.
By lengthening the negative and adding a little more pitch variety to that word, you soften your language.
That’s not exactly what I meant.
Compare it to when I say it with flat, low intonation in the video.
With a falling tone, it sounds like you’re annoyed that the other person didn’t understand, even though it was your explanation that wasn’t clear.
Instead, say it in a more approachable way.
Here are some other expressions that can be used in the same way:
- Actually, what I meant was… (and then follow it with your idea).
- Actually, what I meant was… (what you meant), not… (what they said).
- I actually suggested that we… (do X action), not… (Y action).
- I meant to say that… (you’ll follow this with your idea rephrased in better words).
- My idea was actually that we should…
- What I meant by… (word, phrase, or idea) was…
- I was actually trying to suggest that…
- I was actually trying to say that…
- I was actually trying to explain that…
- Let’s see if I can explain myself better.
- Let me try to explain that another way.
Did you notice that many of these expressions use the word “actually”?
In American English, the word “actually” is often used to clarify a misunderstanding.
We usually stress the word “actually” to signal that we’re going to explain what we really meant.
It makes the phrase sound a little bit softer and a little more polite.
As you can see, clarifying a misunderstanding by using these phrases enables you to feel more control in the situation.
You accept the fact that you weren’t perfectly clear, and then continue confidently forward.
You’ll sound more natural because you’re not making a big deal about the mistake. You’re handling it smoothly and continuing the conversation.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
Have you found yourself in a situation where you needed to admit that you weren’t clear?
What happened? How did you handle it?
Which expression are you going to use next time you have to clarify what you mean?
Leave a comment and let me know.
You’ll communicate more effectively when you know what to say to handle the situation, and how to say it so that your meaning is understood.
If you found this lesson helpful, you should definitely review how to clarify what you heard, ask for repetition, and confirm your understanding.
Together, these lessons will help you avoid confusion and solve misunderstandings in your conversations with native English speakers!