Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

how to use i don't know to set the tone in English

When we say “I don’t know” can we be saying more than just ” I don’t have the answer.” 

What else can it mean and how can this phrase work to set the tone of what you are about to say?

Find out today!

Let’s start with a role play:


L: What’s up Michelle? What do you think about this new tax bill that the house just passed?

M: Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Washington politicians right now.

In this conversation I asked Michelle a question and she said, “I don’t know” not so much to signal that she had no information but she wanted to convey a feeling of being discouraged and jaded. She really set that tone with her tone of voice and this phrase “I don’t know.”

Let’s see a question from a listener:


Hi Lindsay and Michelle,

I’m from Japan and a great fan of your wonderful podcast.

It’s the first time to keep listening to English material for study. To be honest, your talking speed is so fast for me that I usually listen to each episode at least three times to understand well.

Thanks for your great job and hope you are doing well.

Please let me ask a question.

I’m confused about how to use this phrase “I don’t know”.

I’ve heard this many times in your episodes or conversations with native speakers.

I think it literally means “I don’t have knowledge or information”, but many people use it even if they know.

For example,”What do you think of it? I don’t know… lt was great”, or after people say their opinion, they add “I don’t know”to the end.

When and how do you use this phrase?

Sorry for making a lot of mistakes in writing and thank you so much in advance.

Best regards,



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Examples of how we use “I don’t know” to convey different tones and moods:

  • To convey excitement or secretiveness
    • A: So you have your second date with John tonight right?
    • B: Yeah.
    • A : Where is he taking you?
    • B: Oh I don’t know (sound like you have a secret) we’re just going to play it by ear


  • Convey negativity or skepticism
    • A: So I know the atmosphere at work has been dramatic but we’re implementing some new rules to keep things under control.
    • Yeah, I don’t know. I might look for a new job. 


  • Convey that there is a risk. Someone is taking a chance.
    • A: You guys are launching your new software product next week right?
    • B: yep.
    • A: I don’t know. Do you think your clients will get into it?



The phrase “I don’t know” is not only when we don’t have the answer or the facts.

It can convey so much more.

Try to use “I don’t know” to convey your tone in a conversation the next time you connect with a native speaker.

Let us know how it goes!


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