I had it ingrained in me to avoid saying "what?" when I didn't hear what someone said, and instead ask "pardon?" to avoid sounding rude.

What if I only need partial clarification of what was said though, and I don't want to force the speaker to completely reiterate what they said just to fill in the part I missed?

For example

How is the ****** coming along?

I could say "pardon?", and force them to completely re-say the sentence again just so I can hear the one part again, or I could say

How is the "what" coming along?

Which most people understand as me asking for them to fill in the "what".

Is this considered rude though? I try to avoid use of "what" in situations like this, but I can't think of another obvious choice.

How is the "pardon" coming along?

Just sounds odd, and is arguably ambiguous, since a "pardon" is an actual thing, unlike "what".

Is "what" acceptable to use here? If not, is there a more accepted alternative?

  • Lots of variants: Is it on the phone and the signal dropped, muting a word? Is it in the street and someone is using a jackhammer nearby so you can't hear? Does the other person in the conversation have a "I can't be bothered to speak clearly" issue? Does the other person say something which needed context to be understood without providing such context? – peufeu Nov 4 '17 at 21:01

It's not the word "what" that's rude. It's just saying


as you entire response. And as you can see, Pardon? or I beg your pardon? aren't much better. They make the other person do all the work. Did you miss a word? Do you not have any idea what they're referring to even though you heard clearly? Are you offended that they are asking about that? No way to know.

I prefer to do most of the work. So in your example

Sorry, missed a word there. What were you asking about?

Although How is the "what" coming along? would work too. Subbing "pardon" in there is nonsensical, don't do that.

  • My immediate thought is similar to yours: "I'm sorry, how is the 'what' (?) coming along?" – anongoodnurse Nov 4 '17 at 19:16
  • Interestingly, saying "Sorry, missed a word there, what were you asking about?" still makes the other party do most of the work: they have to repeat the entire sentence. When asking about the specific word they can simply repeat the single word and you can then see if that lets you understand the question or not. – Cronax Nov 7 '17 at 15:53

Hmm ... I might say, "Sorry, what was that?"

This of course does risk a reiteration of the whole sentence, but I'm okay with that; how likely is it that you missed exactly one word from the sentence and no other nuance? I'd just as soon get the whole thing again.

If you do want to be more precise, you might try, "Sorry, missed that. You were asking about ... what?"

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