Vocabulary – How to Use the Verb ‘Explain’!

by Melanie on January 13, 2010

I have lost count of the number of times a student has said to me:

Teacher, can you explain me . . .?” or “Let me explain you what I mean . . .


No, I cannot explain YOU anything nor can you explain ME anything because that is NOT the correct use of explain!



The definition of explain is:

to make something clear or easy to understand by describing or giving information about it; to give reasons for something.
(*from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)


*Explain is used in a specific pattern:

You explain something TO someone.

(*most common)


You explain TO someone something.


Example Sentences:

Could you explain the meaning of the word ‘disaster’ to me?

Can you explain to me the difference between ‘borrow’ and lend’?

The teacher explained the rules to the children.

I explained my problems to my friends.

I understand now. She explained it to me very clearly.

I was disappointed with the way she explained the cutbacks.

After she explained her actions, everyone understood.

We asked him to explain his reason for leaving to us.

I don’t know how to explain her strange behavior.

No one has been able to explain crop circles.

How do you explain such horrible news to young children?


*Something could also be a clause with a wh- question:

Can you explain what ‘a harbour’ is?

Would you mind explaining why you’re so late?

We let her inside the house after she explained who she was.

He tried to explain how to play cricket to me, but I still don’t get it.

As soon as we got off the bus, our tour guide explained where the toilets were.

I will attempt to explain when to use the present perfect and when to use the simple past.

My mom explained to us how to use the washing machine.


*Something could also be a clause with that:

They explained that they were separating temporarily.

The trainer explained that your body needs to rest after each workout.

I explained to everyone that I would be checking my email while I was on vacation.

I explained to him it was a waste of my time to teach him if he wasn’t going to try!

(*that can be left out of the sentence)


*Or, if you are NOT explaining anything to anyone, then explain can be used by itself:

As I explained in my recent blog post, not everyone in Canada is bilingual!

Please, let me explain. / Give me a chance to explain.

If you’re still confused, I’ll be happy to explain further.


*You can also explain yourself (explain your behaviour/why you did something, or say something more clearly.)

You said what? Explain yourself!

It’s OK, I understand. You don’t have to explain yourself.

I don’t have to explain myself to you – you’re not my mother!

Let me try to explain myself more clearly.

Listen to me! I’m trying to explain myself!

He disappeared for two weeks with no explanation. I’m waiting for him to explain himself.



*Always remember:

You explain something TO someone.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 manmen April 17, 2012 at 4:00 am

Thanks a lot! your ‘explanation’ has been so useful!


2 Vinicius June 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Thank you…very helpful!!!


3 Dinesh Singh Rajpurohit December 4, 2012 at 9:49 am



4 Romina February 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Thanks Melanie! I’m studying to be an English Teacher in Argentina, and this helps me a lot!


5 Django March 13, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Are there other verbs following this pattern?

For instance, let’s consider the following sentence:

“Please, describe me what happened to the tiniest detail.”

Is it correct?

If the verb ‘to describe’ follows the same pattern as ‘to explain’, then here’s how my example sentence should be rephrased:

“Please, describe to me what happened to the tiniest detail.”



Melanie 6 Melanie March 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Hi, Django!

I have edited your comment to fix the punctuation.

Your second sentence is correct. ‘Describe’ is like ‘explain,’ it is not followed by a direct personal object.

So, you can say …
“Please, describe what happened …”
“Please, describe to me what happened …”

= )


7 Paul May 15, 2013 at 8:34 am

Hello, Melanie!
I am excited about your way of teaching. Very impressive and intresting. But may I ask you about construction “would be + -ing” like in clause “I explained to everyone that I would be checking my email while I was on vacation.”. What does it mean? Thanks


Melanie 8 Melanie May 20, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Hi, Paul!

Hmmmm. I had to think about your question!

“I explained to everyone that I would be checking my email while I was on vacation.”

‘Would’ is used to talk about the future in the past. In the past I told everyone “I will be checking my email while I am on vacation.”

Now I am back from vacation. I am talking to someone about what I said in the past. “I explained [in the past] to everyone that I would be checking my email while I was on vacation. [talking about the future in the past]”

= )


9 SAWSAN August 31, 2013 at 5:01 am

Why it’s wrong to say ( He explains me the reasons )?


Melanie 10 Melanie September 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Hi, Sawsan,

You can say, “Why is it wrong to say ‘He explains me the reasons’?”


It’s wrong because that is not the correct sentence structure. That is not how people speak or write in English.

= )


11 Sarah January 13, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Currently revising for today’s grammar test, you helped me a lot ! :D


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