Analysis of Forms and Uses of Clarification
Sung-Kuang Chung and Maohua Du


People ask for clarification in all situations and at all times.  When speaking English, it's important to remember that while it's the responsibility of the speaker to try to communicate a clear message, it is the responsibility to the listener to tell the speaker when he or she does not understand.  for example, the listener may have to ask the speaker to speak more slowly or repeat what has been said.  I happens very often in the conversation between native speakers and non-native speakers as well as between two native speakers.  but different people may ask in different ways, depending upon who they are talking to and where the conversation happens.  So it's very important for a language learner to have some basic idea of how people ask for clarification.  The purpose of this study is to find out some language patterns in asking for clarification, and provide some knowledge about this language behavior which the English learner should be aware of.

Method, Participants, and Site

In order to find out more about the clarification techniques used by people, we decided to conduct some research.  we decided the the best ways to collect data are by observation and interview.  The reason to use two methods to collect data is that observation will give us objective data, while interviewing people will give us subjective data.  Moreover, people might not be aware of the ways that they do clarification, interviewing these people will not give us valid data, in this kind of situation, observation will help us collect data.

Observation was done in several places.  When people ask for clarification, the conversation between two or three people would be written down.  Interviews were conducted in the Physics department.  Interviewees were students, the department secretary, and professors.  because this is qualitative research in language learning area, conversation observation and interviewing people are the most efficient ways to collect data.

Findings and Discussion

According to this study, there are some patterns in asking for clarification.  People usually choose different words when they talk to different people.  we can observe very different ways of asking for clarification in formal and informal situations.  Following are some examples of asking for clarification in the informal situation.

The first example happened in an auto parts store.  A woman cam into the store and wanted to buy something.  We tried to find the things she  needed on the shelf, but she couldn't find them.  Following is the conversation between this woman and the clerk, both are native speakers:

    W:  Where is the...?
    C:  What's that?
    W: The windshield fluid.
    C:  Right behind you.

The second example happened outside the library.  An English non-native speaker saw something happening outside the library and asked his friend, a native speaker.  Following is the conversation between these two students:

    NNS:  Who are those people?  Those dressed in pink.
      NS:   Oh, those are the Hare Krishnas.
    NNS:  What? Hare...what's that?
      NS:  Hare Krishnas, a religious group.  They're vegetarians.
    NNS:  Oh, and they give away free lunch over there?

The third example happened in a computer lab.  All three students are English non-native speaker.  Two of them are classmates and they are working on a project.  The third one walked in and  asked for help on his programming homework.  Following is the conversation between these students.

    NNS1:  Do you know C?
    NNS2:  What?
    NNS1:  C, you know, the programming language.  What's wrong with my program?
                 (Shows NNS2 a paper with C code on it.)
    NNS2:  Oh, I don't know C very well, I use FORTRAN only.
    NNS3:  Let me see it.
                 (NNS1 hands the paper to NNS3.)

In the above example, simply "What?" was used to ask for clarification.

Example 4 happened in a classroom.  A native English speaker tried to explain something to a non-native speaker.  When the non-native speaker heard a word pronounced a word differently than he had learned, he asked for clarification.

       NS:  ...depends on how often they speak to non-native speakers.
    NNS:   Of-en?
       NS:  Yeah, of-en, you know, the frequency.
    NNS:  Oh, you mean of-ten.  Shouldn't it be pronounced of-ten?
      NS:  Well, you can say of-ten or of-en, both are OK.

In this example, clarification has been made simply by repeating the word needed for clarification.

The last example happened outside the library.  Two English non-native speakers want to set up a meeting after they went home and checked their schedule.  They decided to write e-mail to each other.  When the first student asks the second student to give him his email address, the second student feels confused.  Following is the conversation between these two students.

    NNS1:  Write down your email address. (Gives NNS2 a paper and pen)
    NNS2:  ......... (No language, simple stares at NNS1.)
    NNS1:  Your email address.
    NNS2:  You should have it already, right?
    NNS1:  Yes, but I already delete it from my mailbox.

In this example, clarification has been made by staring at the person who made a request.

From the above examples, we can find that people use very simple sentences when they ask for clarification.  If we listen to the conversation between two friends, "What?", "Huh?" are the most frequently used word for asking for clarification.  But if we are in the classroom, we will barely hear those words.  Instead, we can often hear a professor say, "I'm sorry" or "could you please repeat that?" when he or she doesn't understand a student's question.  We can also hear students use the same words, or when they want a professor to repeat something again say "I'm not sure I follow you."  So the words people choose to ask for clarification do vary in different situations.  Many people we talked to believe "More words, more polite".  So they avoid to use very brief sentences when they talk to important people or want to show respect to the person they talk to.  But when the conversation happens in the informal situation, people usually use very simple sentences to express themselves.


Based on our findings, the way of asking for clarification varies in different situations.  We have provided some examples and given our opinions on the language patterns of it.  These strategies (i.e. "More words, more polite.") are a normal part of native speaker communication, and thus are necessary for non-native speakers of English to master.  English learners should be aware that these strategies are useful not only for asking for clarification, but also for a lot of other language behaviors.  The best way for the English learner to get familiar with those language patterns in different language behaviors is to go into real life and observe and practice.