Useful Expressions for Clarifying What You Mean, Restating Your Ideas, and Explaining Your Thoughts

It happens to the best of us. Maybe I am in the middle of a conversation with a friend, colleague, or even a stranger on the street, and I say something that just comes out wrong. Oops! What now?

Maybe I used the wrong word or expression.

Maybe I lost my train of thought (forgot what I was saying).

Maybe I got distracted by something happening around me.

Or maybe I just needed a little more time to come up with the words to express myself clearly.

It doesn’t matter if you are a native English speaker or not – sometimes you need to clarify what you mean, or rephrase or restate an idea.

Perhaps you have accidentally said something that could be seen as offensive or rude, when that wasn’t actually your intention.

Or you may see that the person listening to you looks confused and realize that your idea wasn’t clear.

Whatever the reason, using one of these phrases or expressions signals that you need a little more time to express your idea.

It is a polite way to show the other person that you need to keep talking, and a subtle way to ask them to be patient while you find the right words to express yourself.


Identifying You Need to Clarify Your Idea

As soon as you have realized that you made a mistake when speaking or would like to try explaining yourself again, you should identify or admit that you need to clarify your idea.

These phrases tell your listener that you recognize your mistake and would like them to give you a chance to try again.

  • Sorry, I lost my train of thought.
  • Let me start that again.
  • Let me start over.
  • Let’s try that one more time.
  • Let me rephrase that.
  • That came out wrong.
  • That’s not what I meant to say.
  • Give me a second. Let me restate that.
  • Let me gather my thoughts.
  • Let me try that again.
  • Let me explain that again.

As you may have noticed, many of these expressions use the phrase “Let me” at the beginning.

This phrase can be seen as a small apology to your listener, and shows that you understand are asking for their patience as you reframe your thoughts.


Clarifying What You Mean

Once you have told your listener that you would like to try another way of expressing yourself, you can now clarify what you mean by restating your original thoughts in different words.

Introduce what you are about to say with one of these phrases to show that you are going 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 phrases are also helpful when you are giving a presentation or speaking to someone who looks confused.

You can repeat your same idea with slightly different words in order to emphasize your point, or to make sure that they clearly understood your idea.


Clarifying a Misunderstanding for Your Listener

Sometimes, we don’t realize that the other person didn’t quite understand what we said or that our idea was unclear.

In that case, your listener may use a strategy to clarify what he or she heard, or ask you to repeat something.

If your listener repeats something back to you, and it isn’t exactly what you meant to say, use one of these expressions to clarify your word, phrase, or idea.

These expressions are especially useful in professional situations, where it is important to be polite when repeating yourself.

They indicate that you understand that you may not have been perfectly clear and are willing to try explaining yourself again.

  • That’s not exactly what I meant.
  • Actually, what I meant was (idea), not (the other idea).
  • I actually suggested that we (do X action), not (X action).
  • I meant to say that (rephrase your idea).
  • My idea was actually that we should…
  • What I meant by (word or phrase) was….
  • I was actually trying to suggest that…
  • Let’s see if I can explain myself better.
  • Let me try to explain that another way.

Do you notice that many of these phrases use the word actually?

In American English, the word actually is often used to clarify a misunderstanding.

It makes the phrase sound a little softer and a little more polite.

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Your Turn

Have you found yourself in a situation where you needed to identify that you were unclear and clarify what you meant?

What kind of expression could you have used to clarify your thoughts?

Leave a comment below practicing using one of these expressions and I’ll let you know if you got it right!

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, especially in the workplace!

Ready to communicate more effectively in conversations? Learn communication skills that enable you to connect with other people and engage in natural conversations and professional discussions. Get started here.

7 thoughts on “Useful Expressions for Clarifying What You Mean, Restating Your Ideas, and Explaining Your Thoughts”

  1. This is a handy list Kim – I’ll be sure to share it with my student. It’s not easy, in the case if a misunderstanding, to politely clarify and then continue with your presentation or conversation. I’m glad you’re dealing with these tricky topics which can even pose problems for native speakers!

    • Thanks, Cara! These skills definitely take practice, but being prepared with the right expressions and approach gives us confidence to do so more easily the next time.

  2. I need to prepare a letter address to its association officers to submit financial statement of expenses for transparency to all members and misunderstanding it resulted among its members.

    • This would really depend on what you’re trying to explain. For example, if you say the research project had disappointing results, someone might ask you to clarify what you mean. You would want to give specific examples about how you didn’t get clear data, or you invested a lot of money in advertising but didn’t get many research subjects, or perhaps your hypothesis turned out to be untrue.

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