Join my five-day intonation challenge and improve your tone of voice!

<p>Just enter your email to sign up now!</p>

What to Ask When You Don’t Know the Right Word So You Can Improve Your Vocabulary in English

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation when you couldn’t think of the word you wanted to use? You’re searching and searching and trying to find the right word to express your thoughts.

Don’t worry: it happens to all of us! Sometimes we simply don’t know (or can’t remember) the right word.

In a previous video, I encouraged you to “use your words” to find another way to express your ideas.

Continuing to explain yourself helps you sound more fluent because you’re not panicking when you can’t come up with the exact word.

After all, English isn’t always a precise language. We often use descriptions in order to express the idea that we mean.

What if you substitute another word or find a more lengthy way to explain yourself, but you still want to know the precise word or term you can use in order to express this idea more effectively?

In most cases, the person that you’re speaking with will supply or volunteer the correct word that you want to use.

But what happens if they don’t? After all, they might not say the other word because they understand you and they don’t want to interrupt your flow of thoughts.

In that case, you want to ask the other person to give you the specific word you’re missing.

This is a great way to improve your vocabulary because you’re going to find out the precise term a native speaker would use in this situation.

In this article and video, I’m going to share natural-sounding questions that you can use in order to invite the other person to share the precise word, term, phrase or expression you can use in order to express yourself more accurately.

As we go through the examples, pay attention to your intonation. In order to show curiosity, be sure to use rising intonation.

This encourages the other person to give you more details and shows you’re truly interested in hearing the best way to express yourself in English.


What to Ask When You Don’t Know the Right Word

So let’s talk about the questions! In the video, I repeat each question three times so that you can practice the right intonation pattern for these questions. I encourage you to repeat after me.

  • Is there a better way to say that?
  • Is there another way to say that?
  • Is there a better word for that?
  • What do you call that?

In most cases, native speakers wouldn’t worry about not knowing the words, so we’d just substitute a nonsense word like “whatchamacallit.” “Whatchamacallit” is a quick, reduced way of saying, “What do you call that?”

Whatchamacallit? I probably wouldn’t suggest you say this word, as it’s hard to pronounce like a native, but it’s certainly helpful to understand it when you hear it.

Let’s move on to the rest of the questions:

  • What should I say instead?
  • What should I say instead of [that]? (Fill in “that” with the term you used.)
  • What’s the word I’m trying to think of?
  • What’s the word for that?
  • What’s another word for that?

This may actually be the question a native speaker is most likely to ask: “What’s the word for that?” Simple, to the point. Another common variation is “What’s another word for that?”


Why Asking These Questions Helps Improve Your Vocabulary

When you ask for another word, another way, you’re inviting the other person to provide more vocabulary for you.

This way they won’t feel embarrassed about correcting you. Most people are too polite to correct you if you say something wrong.

If you encourage the other person by saying you want to hear another way to say that or another word to say that, they may get more enthusiastic and start sharing the most precise terms.

As you can see, even if you are able to put your idea into other words and keep going, even though you don’t know the precise term, you may still want to improve your vocabulary and sound a little more natural when choosing the correct word to express this idea.

In this case, you can use any one of these questions to invite the other person to supply the word for you.


Even Native Speakers Need Help Finding the Right Word

Don’t be embarrassed about asking for the correct way to say something!

There are all kinds of terms I can’t think of even as a native English speaker.

If it’s not a word that’s part of our active vocabulary, it may not come to mind that quickly.

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the other person to give you the correct term.

In fact, this is a technique I use in order to sound more like a native speaker when I’m speaking Spanish.

For example, I spent years going to Starbucks in South America, and each and every time I ordered my drink I tried to find a way to express the type of tea I wanted.

I didn’t have the precise word, because I know what it is in English (tea bag), but I didn’t want to directly translate.

I didn’t know what the right word was in Spanish, so I would simply find another way to express myself.

But after ordering in my own words for so long, I finally decided I wanted to use the right term.

After ordering, I asked the barista for the best way to express a “tea bag,” and she told me. Super easy!

(For those who are curious, the term varies between Spanish-speaking countries, but in Peru it is “té en filtrante,” which roughly translates to “tea in a filter,” a very literal term. If you used this term in English, people would understand you, but I suggest you double-check by asking, “Is there a better word for that?”)

I wish I had done it earlier so that I could trust I was saying the right word!


Your Turn

After watching this video, I hope you feel more confident knowing that you can invite the other person to supply the correct word for you.

Sometimes native speakers just need a little more encouragement to correct you. Nobody wants to be rude or make you feel like you can’t speak English.

And remember, it’s perfectly OK if you find another way to express your thoughts! You don’t always need the precise terms if your meaning is clear.

If you want more guidance on how to improve your vocabulary in English, please be sure to check out my three workshops on improving your vocabulary naturally where I share all of my top tips to help you sound more like a native English speaker.

If you’re looking for a specific word, don’t be afraid to comment below, express the idea a different way, and encourage me to supply the word for you. I’ll be happy to help!

Leave a Comment

Small Talk Guide

Want to improve your conversation skills in English? Start with my FREE guide to better small talk!

When you download the guide, you'll also get weekly emails with stories, advice, and useful resources that will help you connect conversations in English. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Learn more and review my privacy policy.

You've got it! Check your email to download your guide.