Imagine that you are talking with a friend who lives overseas. You haven’t seen or spoken to the person in a year and he or she has much news to share.
The friend talks for a long time and you listen…for a long time. But, you want to tell them you have to go to work. How can you do it? You might need to interrupt them, but in a kind way.
There are many reasons that interrupting a speaker or group of speakers may be necessary. They include to:
- End a conversation
- Ask a question
- Give someone a message
- Or to join a conversation
The goal is to be able to do these things in a polite way. In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will share some language you can use.
To end a conversation
So, let’s return to our situation from the start of the program: the desire to end a conversation.
There are times when we want or have to leave a conversation before a speaker finishes. In these situations, we can use one of these phrases:
- I’m sorry to interrupt but…
- I hate to interrupt but…
- I’m sorry to cut this short but…
Here’s how someone might use one of these in conversation:
So, anyway, we get there and as soon as…
I’m sorry to interrupt but I have to be somewhere in an hour.
Oh, okay, no problem! Let’s catch up more next week.
Note that when we interrupt a speaker for any reason, we almost always begin with “Sorry,” “I’m sorry” or, for some kinds of interruptions, “Excuse me.”
To ask a question
Now, let’s move to another common situation: the need to ask a question.
There are times when we have a question about the subject of discussion or even an unrelated subject. Or, we may want to make sure we’ve understood the speaker before they continue speaking.
Here are two useful phrases for asking questions:
- Sorry to interrupt but may I ask a question?
- I’m sorry for the interruption but I have a quick question.
Or, here’s what you can say to check that you’ve understood the speaker:
Sorry for interrupting, but I want to make sure I understand.
Then, you can ask or state something to make sure you’re clear on the speaker’s meaning.
Now, let’s hear how someone might use one of these phrases. Suppose the interrupter briefly walks into a meeting in progress:
Sorry for the interruption, but I have a quick question. What time do the exchange students get here?
They should be here by 2:30.
Great! I’ll have their welcome packets ready by 12.
Note the very small differences in form between “to interrupt” “for the interruption” and “for interrupting.” All are common in American spoken English.
To give a message
In other situations, you may need to give someone a message that cannot wait, such as to inform them about a phone call or other time-sensitive issue. In giving such messages to people while they are speaking, we sometimes start with “Excuse me”:
- Excuse me, Bryan. There’s a phone call for you on line 1.
- Sorry to interrupt, but you’re needed in the lobby to sign for a package.
Note that the phrase “Pardon me” is another way to say, “Excuse me,” but is less common except in very formal situations.
To join a conversation
And, finally, there are times when you want to join a conversation between two or more people.
Sometimes, this is easy to do because you’re already friendly with the people and they are talking casually about a subject.
Other times, the speakers are so deep in discussion that there are no natural breaks in their speech. But you still want to offer an opinion, make an important point or share some information.
These phrases can help you enter a conversation:
- Excuse me, but may I jump in here?
- Sorry to butt in, but…
- May (or) Can I add something here?
- I couldn’t help overhearing…
“I couldn’t help overhearing” means “I couldn’t avoid hearing what you said.” Be careful to use this phrase only with people who would react kindly, such as friends or coworkers.
Listen to a short talk between coworkers:
Did you catch the Golden Globe Awards? I was so happy to see Alfonso Cuarón win best director!
I know! “Roma” was a beautiful film.
I couldn’t help overhearing you talk about “Roma.” I just watched it last night. Wow, what lovely cinematography.
So, you just learned how to politely interrupt other people. But what might you say if someone interrupts you? You can tell us in the comments area.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
interrupt – v. to ask questions or say things while another person is speaking
conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people
polite – adj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people
phrase – n. a brief expression that is commonly used
packet – n. a small, thing package
lobby – n. a large open area inside and near the entrance of a building
formal – adj. requiring or using serious and proper clothes and manners
casually – adv. in a way designed for or permitting ordinary dress, behavior or language
cinematography – n. the art or technique of motion-picture photography