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I'm trying to translate a sentence into English which is something like

"'What do you mean?' he -ly asked."

Of course I could say something like

"he asked, not understanding."

But I'm just curious if there's a single word which can be used here.

I don't think confusedly or bewilderingly works as their connotation is a bit too strong. The connotation should ideally be as literal as possible.

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    I'm puzzled why you need an adverb here, let alone an -ly one. After all, your alternative, not understanding, is modifying the subject here, not the predicate. It was the asker who was lacking understanding, not the asking. As such, it seems like you could use another participle or an adjective, even a prepositional phrase.
    – tchrist
    Jan 16 at 22:10
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    Even if the author overexplained that the question is a question, "What do you mean?" stands on its own. We translate or apple or pear into English by dropping a word. Otherwise, a forced Tom Swifty. If I had grown up in NY City, I'd ask "He asked, not understanding, because he could ask ... understanding?" Jan 16 at 23:07
  • @tchrist I don't need one I was just curious what the best it was possible to do with a single word in this structure was. Of course the default thing to do is just rephrase it to use multiple words. Jan 17 at 7:03
  • MODERATOR NOTE: I've had to lock this question against comments because it's been drawing drive-bys who can't seem to stop themselves from violating SE policy by placing answers in comments.
    – tchrist
    Jan 18 at 2:12

13 Answers 13

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I believe you are asking how to alter a conceptual structure of one subject (he) used with two verbs (asked and did not understand) to one subject (he) and one verb (asked) that uses an adverbial modifier to indicate that he did not understand.

In your sentence, not understanding is (if your preferred English grammar framework allows for such a thing) a reduced adverb clause. In a sentence where you have the same subject in both a main clause and an adverb clause, you can reduce the adverb clause to avoid subject repetition:

“What do you mean?” he asked, because he did not understand.
“What do you mean?” he asked, not understanding.

If you simply must have an adverb, perhaps blankly — in its sense of without understanding — would work:

“What do you mean?” he asked blankly.

Here’s an example:

      “I did not know my brother was on the Monotah until he— he lay dying in my cabin,” she answered.
      He stared at her in amazement.
      “I don’t understand,” he said blankly.
      ”I did not understand then myself,” she said . . .
Two Stolen Idols by Frank L. Packard, 2019

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    I think blankly is quite a good answer, although the others were good as well. I think it has the most neutrality/lack of extra implications. Jan 17 at 4:00
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    "Blankly" as in "without understanding" (or expression) is commonly used with "stare", whereas the meaning associated with speaking is typically "in every respect; totally; fully". To me, both roughly mean there isn't any "colour" or depth involved, which could mean looking without really seeing, or speaking without subtext or nuance, whereas saying something without understanding does typically come with the "depth" of confusion, uncertainty or curiosity. So "blankly" wouldn't fit too well here for me.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 19 at 13:32
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In OP's context, without understanding doesn't mean robotically or without thinking about it - it means unable to make sense of things. Hence...

"What do you mean?"... (What does this mean? What's going on?)
...he asked bemusedly
...he asked bewilderedly

(Both those possibilities link to many written instances in Google Books)

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    “What do you mean?”, Tom asked, puzzled.
    – tchrist
    Jan 16 at 22:55
  • Excellent! But he did ask for an adverb. But, yeah. If I was a writer, and my "proofreader" suggested your version I'd grab it gratefully! (I'd already have ruled out "bewilderedly" all on my own! :) Jan 16 at 23:03
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    Anyway, I already posted mine as an Answer because I thought it was being a bit lazy to just leave it as a comment under uncomprehendingly. Perhaps you should do the decent thing and post yours as an Answer! :) Jan 16 at 23:06
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    I've asked him why he says he needs an adverb, considering that his original not understanding which he discarded was no adverb to begin with—so I can't understand why he thinks he needs an adverb there in the first place. He's describing the actual person who is doing the asking, not the manner of his request!
    – tchrist
    Jan 16 at 23:08
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    It's an annoyingly vague context. I'm sure the OP must know the exact meaning of the sentence he's trying to translate. And if he's got the "job" of translating it into English, the implication is he should be able to be precise about the intended meaning. Using many words - many sentences, if necessary - so we don't have to guess what seems likely. Jan 16 at 23:14
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Try uncomprehendingly. It works in many contexts such as yours.

Cambridge
uncomprehendingly
adverb
without understanding something:
He listened uncomprehendingly to her technical explanations.
She gazed at him uncomprehendingly when he questioned her.

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  • Or, perhaps, ...he asked bemusedly. There it is in print, many times. Jan 16 at 22:28
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    “What do you mean?” he asked uncomprehendingly is comparable to “What do you mean?” he asked without understanding — which doesn’t make much sense here. Jan 16 at 22:41
  • @Tinfoil Hat Couldn't “What do you mean?” he asked blankly ['with blankly in its sense of without understanding'] be considered equally redundant? I'd say yours works, though, as 'blankly' means 'without any understanding at all'. Jan 17 at 16:44
  • @EdwinAshworth — At the time of my comment, I think I was trying to suggest that when one “asks uncomprehendingly,” it means that they didn’t understand that (or what) they had asked — you know, like a senior moment or something. Jan 18 at 5:06
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Yes, confused is an adjective but it fits and it's idiomatic. Changing it into an adverb (confusedly) would not work as well because it could also mean “in a confusing manner”.

Cambridge Dictionary defines confused as,

unable to think clearly or to understand something:

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If the asker doesn't understand because it is a new concept being told, you can use the word naively.

naively: in a way that shows a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment (Oxford)

"What do you mean?" he naively asked.

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It depends to some extent on the nature of action being undertaken. If it were to do with listening to or reading something, then Anton's well illustrated suggestion would be the best.

If it were a politician taking an action without properly understanding its implications, it would be more likely that an adverb like blindly.

Not thinking about or understanding what you are doing [Cambridge English Dictionary] - they just blindly followed orders

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  • “What do you mean?” he blindly asked. How will that work in the OP’s context? Jan 16 at 22:25
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    I think OP's "lack of understanding" implies puzzlement, as opposed to blindly following orders. You wouldn't "blindly" ask what's going on, as seems to be the likely sense of What do you mean [by that]? Jan 16 at 22:27
  • @FumbleFingers: I took the headline question "doing something without question" literally. Asking is a rather special case of doing. Just about any adverb I can think of is going to look odd as a modifier for 'ask' in the context of a need for more information, except in the context of the question's being daft (because the answer was in plain sight), or infuriating/vexatious (because he always made a point of that sort of response) or cunning/perceptive (because he suspected the speaker had no idea what he was on about)... But no one word would do for all these special cases.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 17 at 11:41
  • The question itself is irritatingly imprecise - especially since I assume the OP speaks the language of the text he's translating, so he should know exactly what the context and required meaning is. Just because he can't think of a single-word English adverb for that sense doesn't mean he can't write as many sentences as necessary to tell us as much as he knows about the intended meaning. But actually, the question as phrased is a bit of a guessing game. Jan 17 at 12:12
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It sounds like you want "'What do you mean?' he mindlessly asked."

you could use "absent mindedly" if 2 words is ok.

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You've already selected 'blankly' as the answer, but my experience is that that the word 'cluelessly' would be more likely used in the context. The definition of "blankly" doesn't correspond to your description:

"'What do you mean?' he -ly asked."

'What do you mean?' he cluelessly (MW) asked. Here you avoid the stronger terms 'confusedly' and its ilk, and at the same time stick with simpler speaking. 'Get a clue' is often heard as figurative language.

In addition, blankly tends to suggest a visual appraisal of someone's mental state, but you aren't using it dialog, you're using as a omniscient narrator when you are describing the mental state. If in the dialog the user was speaking to the person about that person's cluelessness, blankly might be a better fit. My personal experience is that people tend to use the world blankly to describe a face or state, not a mental state per se.

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rote, as in "We reconstructed the machine without understanding it's design by rote memorization during disassembly."

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    Jan 18 at 15:42
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Most answers, as @TinfoilHat notes, describe how you can describe the person rather than the actual statement. You want an adverb. If you would be fine with an adverbial phrase rather than a single word, might I suggest

"What do you mean?" he asked, as if not understanding.

Especially if what you want to convey is how the question appears, rather than the actual state of understanding of the person in question, something like that might be the way to go. You could add more words and get a more precise statement, e.g.

"What do you mean?" he asked, as if not having understood a word she had said.

"What do you mean?" he asked happily, as if not understanding the graveness of the accusations just made against him.

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You might be able to use:

... "he asked oafishly."

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/oafishness

Depending on the context, of course.

Many readers would take this as some who was asking in an overbearing and uncaring manner.

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'What do you mean?' he ignorantly asked.

Merriam Webster:

ignorant
adjective
ig·​no·​rant ˈig-n(ə-)rənt
1  a : destitute of knowledge or education
          an ignorant society
        also : lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified
          parents ignorant of modern mathematics
    b : resulting from or showing lack of knowledge or intelligence
          ignorant errors
2 : UNAWARE, UNINFORMED

-4

Adjective

caricaturish (comparative more caricaturish, superlative most caricaturish)

Resembling a caricature 
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