What I want to write is formal, or polite version of

what the hell are you talking about?

A reason why I can't use this is beacuse a person who's saying this is a middle-aged man, and he's not likely to say something like "what the hell.."

And I know I can just remove "the hell" and go for "what are you talking about?", but it's too simple compared to what I initially wanted to say. I don't know what exactly "hell" means here, but I know it does have some impolite, negative connotations. But here, he isn't being that offensive. He's kind of emphasizing what he had just heard is a total nonsense.

Is there any expression which is a formal version of "what the hell are you talking about" in English?

Or is there any good word that can replace "the hell"?

  • 1
    As a minced oath, "what the dickens" is often substituted for "what the hell".
    – Mick
    Nov 26, 2017 at 14:46
  • 1
    A more formal response would be "I beg you pardon?"
    – Mick
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:09
  • 2
    Whatever are you talking about? You can italicize the are to indicate emphasis, to sound like it would when said.
    – Lambie
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:11
  • 2
    What in heaven's name are you talking about?
    – Lambie
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:12
  • 4
    I wouldn't assume that middle-aged men are unlikely to say "what the hell". It depends on the individual and on the circumstances.
    – rjpond
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:23

3 Answers 3


There are perhaps several hundred ways to say this, most of which depend on the personality, background, nationality, education, social class, etc. of the person involved. A colorful example:

The deuce you say!

This is a British expression dating back to the 17th century where "deuce" is used in place of "devil" ("The devil you say!"). I'm not sure how formal it is, but it seems to have been acceptable between Victorian gentlemen (although possibly not when ladies were present).

Apparently it means something more like "I don't believe what you just said!" which can sometimes be the purpose of saying "What the hell are you talking about?"

In a similar way you can often substitute the mild epithet "heck" for "hell":

What the heck are you talking about?

Other possibilities:

What in the world are you saying?

What on earth do you mean?

What in God's name are you talking about?

More colloquially:

What the dickens are you talking about?

What in blue blazes are you talking about?

What on God's green Earth are you talking about?

Of course, you can always go the other direction by using stronger epithets than "hell". Feel free to get creative.


Instead of what the hell, you can say what on earth or what in the world.


If you were being very formal, you might use a polite phrase which merely implies your scepticism, such as:

  • Excuse me?
  • That's very interesting…
  • I would never have thought of that!
  • Thank you for sharing that.
  • I beg your pardon?
  • I'll bear that in mind…
  • I hardly know what to say.
  • What a novel idea!

(With the right tone, such a remark can be utterly withering yet perfectly polite and hard to take offence at.)

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