Why You Should Ask “Could You Please Clarify…?” Instead of “Explain”

Need more information in a professional situation, business meeting, seminar, or conference? Ask for clarification, NOT an explanation.

Imagine yourself in this situation:

After listening carefully to your colleague’s presentation in a business meeting, you realize you still need a little more information before giving your feedback.

You understand his overall ideas, but would like a few more details, so you ask him this question: “Could you please explain this to me?”

But for some reason, he starts over from the beginning, as if you didn’t understand anything he said at all. What happened?

The reality is that there’s a subtle, but significant, difference between the words “explain” and “clarify.”


The Subtle Difference Between Explain and Clarify

When you ask someone to explain something to you, it suggests that you’re pretty lost, that you missed key points, or that they need to give you a more in-depth explanation so that you fully understand.

When you ask someone to clarify something for you, it suggests that you are following what the person is saying and understand the majority or all of the key points, but you need more details on a certain point.

Or perhaps the other person wasn’t fully clear (it happens!) so they need to restate their idea another way.

Of course, if you do need a longer, more detailed explanation, you want to use the verb “explain” rather than “clarify.”

But if you only need a small detail explained to you, choose the verb “clarify” instead.

Learning to clarify what you heard and confirm your understanding are two of the most important conversation skills in English, because they show the other person that you are listening carefully, participating in the conversation, and want to be sure you understood everything.

When I share ways to clarify what you heard, you’ll notice that the verb “explain” is almost completely absent.

If you do choose to use “explain,” be sure to be very specific about what you need explained, naming a particular idea, detail, or viewpoint.

Instead of asking, “Could you please explain…?” be sure to ask, “Could you please clarify…?” to sound more professional, more intelligent, and more fluent when speaking English.


Your Turn

Have you ever asked someone to explain something when you should have asked them to clarify? What happened? Leave a comment and share your story.

If you need any clarification on other words that can make a big difference in how competent and confident you sound in English, let me know below!

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10 thoughts on “Why You Should Ask “Could You Please Clarify…?” Instead of “Explain””

  1. I love her explanation and the depth of it. As I study English longer and harder, I feel like I do not really understand what other people who speak in the language say. I hope Kim keeps doing her work.

    Reply
    • Hi Lee! I’m happy to hear my explanation has helped you. You’re right – the more you study English, the more nuances you discover! Learning a language is definitely a journey, so be sure to stay curious as you keep moving forward.

      Reply
  2. Kim this is very clear. What if a person doesn’t use could you explain or clarify but actually questions why something is so. Eg person has just details of budget on an item when another at meeting “why are the number of hours 20 are they needed”

    Is this requesting clarification. It sounded like questioning to me

    Any help

    Reply
    • Without knowing the whole context, it is hard to know exactly what the person is asking. They could be asking for additional clarification on the specific reasons for budgeting 20 hours. They could also be challenging the budgeted number and suggesting indirectly that 20 seems excessive. In this case, I think it’s best to assume that they just need additional information to justify this number and provide more details on your own reasoning. Then they have the choice to be more clear about the information they truly want.

      Reply

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