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There are many different ways to ask people to repeat what they have just said. For example:

  • Huh?
  • What?
  • Sorry?
  • Pardon?
  • What's that?
  • Say that again, please
  • I beg your pardon?

I've ordered them according to my understanding of their level of formality. I'd classify interjection "huh?" as the least formal and phrase "I beg your pardon" as the most formal.

Apart from the formality that you decide to imply, are there any other factors involved when you choose which one of these phrases you will use?

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10  
“I beg your pardon!” is also the extremely polite way to tell someone that you think they are being rude. –  nohat Sep 19 '10 at 18:04
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Some more (from less to more formal): "Say what?", "Come again?", "Excuse me?". (I kinda like "Come again?", but that's probably because it reminds me of Pulp Fiction.) –  Jonik Sep 19 '10 at 19:19
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-1 for a subjective, list-y question –  Pops Sep 20 '10 at 0:22
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The problem with "I beg your pardon!" is that it is also used when you accidentally bump into someone. "I'm Sorry" can mean "I apologize and take responsibility" or " I empathize, even though I'm not the cause of your distress". English is full of this sort of thing. Oh, yes. And up here in the True North, "eh?" is de rigueur. –  mickeyf Sep 20 '10 at 3:41
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7 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

A more accurate order of formality (least to most) would be:

  • Huh?
  • What?
  • What's that?
  • Come again?
  • Say that again, please
  • Sorry?
  • Excuse me?
  • Pardon?
  • I beg your pardon?

There are of course many more variations on these. A few of these are a lot more common than offers, in particular pardon and sorry which may be used in anything from casual to formal speech. Huh? or even what? are often considered quite rude unless you are speaking casually to a peer/acquaintance.

As mentioned in comments, several of these phrases are more commonly used ironically than directly/literally, most notably "Excuse me?" or "I beg your pardon?" - either is used to express disbelief or indignity.

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I was taught to use "Pardon me?" in formal situations. I would rank it between "Pardon?" and "I beg your pardon?" In your list. I'm not sure if that is correct, though. Just the way I was taught. –  e.James Sep 19 '10 at 23:09
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@e.James: Yeah, I think that ranking is probably correct. (It's only very subtlety different from "pardon" though.) "I beg your pardon?" always works as the most formal though. –  Noldorin Sep 20 '10 at 12:10
    
I would put "Say that again, please." or "Would you repeat that, please?" as more formal - possibly most formal. Just IMO ... –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 7:43
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@hunter2, that's still technically giving a command, so I don't think it would be the most formal. At least not in Britain. –  Noldorin Jul 5 '13 at 15:07
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Yes, that makes sense, and probably applies elsewhere, too. Interesting rationale. (I would say the "Would you" version is a very soft/gentle way of 'commanding', but I do see your point, and agree.) –  hunter2 Jul 8 '13 at 8:04
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I prefer sorry.

Apart from that, I use can you repeat?

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You could also use the more drawn out, but seemingly more formal (to me):

I'm sorry, I missed that (last thing). Could you please repeat yourself?

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A small addition to the earlier answer of Noldorin, for which I agree, is that some phrases may lead to an impression that you did not like what has been said and that you want the speaker to rephrase it or even change it allover.

The following phrases give me that feeling:

  • What?
  • What's that?
  • Come again?
  • Say that again, please
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It may be worth adding here that an expression derived from military radio communications has been creeping into the broader language, at least in America:

Say again?

It is spoken as a question (i.e., with a rising intonation) and is a terse and unequivocal request for clarification.

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+1 unequivocal. "Copy" ("copy that" "do you copy?") is sometimes used in related contexts, but "Did not copy" could be problematic in a noisy environment. "Say again" is better. –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 7:47
    
@hunter2 Small point: +1 means you have upvoted a question or answer. –  Robusto Jul 5 '13 at 11:35
    
Well, I have now. But good note; I did not realize that. Elsewhere, just a little bit ago, I said something like "+1 but no vote, because I've hit some kind of vote limit, because I've spent too much time here today". (And I'm still here.) –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 11:46
    
I use this because, unlike nearly all other such expressions, it seems to reliably convey "please repeat what you just said, but slower and with better enunciation" rather than "that didn't make any sense, please rephrase". (I have trouble decoding speech over background noise; often if I say "huh?" or "what?" the person I'm talking to will rephrase the statement but not enunciate any better, leaving me still at a loss.) –  Zack Oct 9 '13 at 23:33
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Huh is a word that I would use in the most comfortable family-friend environment—if I used it. Professional, the business world deserve a better response —

  • Excuse me.
  • I didn't understand what you said.
  • Pardon me.
  • Would you mind repeating that?

I truly think this subject ties in with — parenting, school, church, being politically correct, professional, and just maybe not being uneducated.

There is a time for all things, for some anyway, huh?

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Well, since you asked about "other factors"...

I realize I'm probably in a decided minority here, but personally I find asking people to repeat things to be a very socially awkward activity (verging on rude). My own conversations tend to be very "in the moment" things. If you ask me to repeat something, most likely the "moment" is gone and it will no longer make nearly as much sense or be nearly as clever as when I originally said it. So basically you are asking me to put (now) dumb words in my own mouth for your benefit. I really don't like this, and will often politely refuse.

Now there are some situations where it is understandable and unavoidable. For instance, a loud noise occurred at a critical time (understandable), and/or what was said is important for the conversation to go on (unavoidable). But if the latter condition doesn't hold then I think it is far better to just let things go on and try to pick it up out of context. Or just let it slide.

There are people who are legitimately hard of hearing, and I'm am sorry about that. However, it is still wrong to insist every word uttered around you be repeated over and over again until you personally get it.

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Older relatives and ESL speakers the world over would beg to differ. I appreciate the different perspective, but generally disagree. –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 7:50
    
I do understand why you feel that way, and to some extent I feel the same, but part of growing up (for me) was accepting that I need to repeat things for my increasingly hearing impaired relatives, even if I find that annoying. If it's any comfort, it probably wasn't that clever the first time. No? No comfort? –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 11:51
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