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.


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