In British English, a common way of expressing a polite request for a person to repeat what they just said because you didn't hear (all) of it is to use the interjection, "sorry?". I was wondering how common this is outside of British English. Is this as common in the US, Australia, etc.? Would it be understood as a perfectly normal thing to say, or as a quaint British expression?

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    It might just be worth adding as a footnote that ‘pardon’ is deemed to be non-U. As Professor Ross said in his 1956 paper, ‘Pardon is used by the non-U in three main ways: (1) if the hearer does not hear the speaker properly; (2) as an apology (eg on brushing by someone in a passage); (3) after hiccuping or belching. The normal U-correspondences are very curt, viz. (1) What? (2) Sorry] (3) (Silence).’ Commented Oct 28, 2011 at 9:43
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    To add to what Barrie says, when I was a child in London 50 years ago, we were taught not to say "pardon". But I'm pretty sure we also did not have "sorry" in this sense. Since we were also enjoined not to say "what?" we were left with "What did you say?" as the only acceptable possibility. I reckon "Sorry" came in in the 80's, but I have only personal recollection to support this.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 28, 2011 at 11:40
  • It is a well reported phenomenon (and don't ask me where) that if you bump into someone in the streeet it is the bumpee who will say 'Sorry'. Commented Oct 28, 2011 at 16:55
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    In the US, Hmm?, Sorry, I didn't catch that...?, and Excuse me? (the last, with a quizzical look, not the look you might give someone who just stepped on your toe) are reasonably common, though Pardon? is not very common, in my experience.
    – aedia λ
    Commented Oct 28, 2011 at 18:58
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    And this is what Kate Fox wrote in her book, Watching the English: "This word is the most notorious pet hate of the upper and upper-middle classes. Jilly Cooper recalls overhearing her son telling a friend ‘Mummy says that “pardon” is a much worse word than “f*ck”’. He was quite right: to the uppers and upper-middles, using such an unmistakably lower-class term is worse than swearing. Some even refer to lower-middle-class suburbs as ‘Pardonia’."
    – Alex B.
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 18:36

6 Answers 6


The NOAD reports the following entry for sorry:

used as a polite request that someone should repeat something that one has failed to hear or understand: "Sorry? In case I what?"

It is not marked as being chiefly British. In ten years I have visited the USA, I have heard sorry being used when somebody didn't hear or understand what somebody else said.


I've lived in both the UK and the US and my anecdotal experience is that "sorry" is very much more common in the UK than the US. It sounds very British to my ear. In the US "excuse me?" or "huh?" are considerably more commonly used to serve this purpose.

However, as the saying goes, data is not the plural of anecdote.


I live in the U.S. and I use "sorry" by itself to mean exactly as you stated. More often than not I'm met with a confused look and I have to continue, "I didn't hear that, could you repeat it?" So saying sorry by itself may not be too commonly understood in the U.S.

Disclaimer: I also use other British words and, after having studied in England for a year, found that the things deemed as quirks in the U.S. are seen as normal in England. My use of sorry may not be the norm in the U.S.


It's definitely used in Australia as well, far more frequently than "pardon" if you haven't heard what someone has said.


I live in the U.S. but when I have visited Canada, I notice this usage of sorry to be much more common than in the U.S.

  • I can't speak to how common it is in the USA, but I wouldn't bat an eye hearing it in Canada, and in fact tend to use it myself instead of "what?" when I'm trying to be polite. The alternatives "beg your pardon?" or "pardon me?" are wordy and sound stilted; "excuse me?" sounds a smidgen rude.
    – ghoppe
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 21:14

It's used in India to mean the same thing. Old people still use pardon.

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    This is a very short answer, and not nearly as comprehensive as other answers. It can be improved by broadening it and adding citations, or else reposting as an edit to improve one of the other answers.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 14:58

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