Explain or Explain me? Fix a common mistake

There’s a mistake students make with the verb explain that can sound funny. In this lesson you’ll learn how to use explain correctly.

You’ll see the verb in action and learn the different structures we commonly use. You’ll also learn how we can use it to describe people’s intentions, motivations and behavior.

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Explain or Explain Me?

There’s a mistake students make with this verb when they’re learning English that can sound funny. In this video you’ll learn how to use ‘explain’ correctly and why you’ll sound funny if you don’t.
Let’s jump straight in and see the verb ‘explain’ in action.

Zap! And Kapow! It’s time for the Superhero Show.
Good evening everyone and welcome to the show where every week we meet a superhero and find out about their powers. And this week it’s Somnia man.
Hello and welcome. Come and join me.
Thank you. Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.
Somnia man, could explain to everyone what your superpower is?
Sure. I can send people to sleep in just a few minutes.
Ooo. That’s an unusual power. Explain how it works.
Well, when I start talking, everyone’s eyelids get heavy and then they fall asleep – fast asleep.
That’s really unusual. When did you discover you had this power?
Oh. I was on a first date with a beautiful girl and we went to a restaurant. She asked me asked me what I do for a living, so I said, ‘Let me explain’. But before I could finish, she was asleep in her soup. I didn’t get a second date and she never explained why. Hello.. Hello? Sorry everyone. I guess it’s happened again.
Next week meet Pizza Woman – the woman with the power see pizza toppings without opening the box.

OK. Did you notice how Somnia man talked in the video? His intonation was very flat. English is a musical language and if you don’t change the pitch of your voice, you’ll sound boring and unenthusiastic. You might send people to sleep! So, don’t do what Somnia man did when you’re speaking. Try to vary your pitch and intonation.
Right. Now, let’s look at how this verb works.
Explain can be an intransitive verb or a transitive verb. That means we can just explain or we can explain something.

She asked me asked me what I do for a living, so I said, ‘Let me explain’. But before I could finish, she was asleep in her soup. I didn’t get a second date and she never explained why.

When explain is transitive, we say what’s being explained and then there are two patterns we follow. Here’s the first one and it’s the most common.

Ooo. That’s an unusual power. Explain how it works.

So ‘how it works’ was the something here. We could have all sorts of somethings . This is the normal pattern so it’s the pattern you need to learn and remember. Explain something. Explain something. Explain something.
If you want to say who receives the explanation, you can add that too.
Is it necessary to say the to someone bit? No. You can add it if you think it’s helpful. It’s up to you.
So that’s the important pattern to learn. Explain something. The second pattern is very similar. The ‘to someone’ comes forward and we put it after ‘explain’. Let’s see that in action.

Somnia man. Could you explain to everyone what your superpower is?
Sure.

So we can say ‘to’ before the person who receives the explanation.
That happened in the first pattern too. We explain something and sometimes we say to who.
Now, I have a question. I’ll show you a different pattern and you tell me if it’s right or not. Is this possible? Notice there’s no ‘to’ before the someone here
And no! This is wrong and it sounds funny.
After explain we put the thing we’re explaining. If you put a person there instead, it sounds like your explaining a person. That’s weird.
So be careful because this is the mistake students make most often. They say ‘explain me’ or ‘explain us’ and that’s funny because we can’t explain people. However we might try to explain someone’s motivations or behavior. So let’s look at how we do that.

What are you doing?
Nothing.
You need to explain yourself.
I was trying to get ten dollars out of the box.
You were trying to steal ten dollars?!
Oh no! I didn’t explain myself properly. I put twenty dollars in the box and I was trying to get ten dollars change.
I’ll never understand you.
My mother says that too. She’s been trying to explain me for years.

Let’s look at three of the phrases we heard there.

What are you doing?
Nothing.
You need to explain yourself.

This is a phrase we say when we’re upset and we want someone to tell us the reason they did something. OK. Another phrase.

You were trying to steal ten dollars?
Oh no! I didn’t explain myself properly.

This phrase means I didn’t say what I meant clearly. I wasn’t clear enough. And the last phrase.

I’ll never understand you.
My mother says that too. She’s been trying to explain me for years.

This means Jay’s mother’s been trying to understand and explain his crazy behavior for years.
So in these phrases explain is followed by a person, with no ‘to’. How come?
Well, they all follow the standard pattern: explain something.
When I say ‘explain yourself’, I mean explain your reasons and intentions. That’s the something.
And if I explain myself properly the something is ‘what I meant to say’.
And when Jay says his mother is trying to explain him, he means she’s trying to explain his strange behavior.
So they follow the standard pattern. It’s just that the something is someone’s strange behavior, words or motivations.
Let’s check you’ve understood. I’ll show you a sentence, and you have to decide if it’s correct English or not. Ready? Here’s the first one. Right or wrong?
This is right! Explain can be intransitive or transitive, so we can just explain or we can explain something.
Next one. Right or wrong?
Wrong. We explain something – not a person. You could say this with ‘to me’, but it’s unusual. We generally explain something to someone.
Great. Next one? Right or wrong? It’s right. We explain something and the something here is ‘how you make people fall sleep’.
OK last one. It’s wrong. We’d say ‘could you explain what this words means’. This one is important if you’re taking a speaking exam, like Cambridge First Certificate or IELTS. If the examiner says something and you don’t understand, it’s quite all right to say, ‘Could you explain that?’. But don’t say ‘Could you explain me that’ because that’s wrong. It could be a mark against you,
And that’s it! Now you know how we use the verb ‘explain’. Now ‘suggest’ is another verb where we follow similar patterns and we’ve made another video about that so I suggest you watch it now. And don’t forget to subscribe to our channel. See you next week. Bye now!
Click here to learn about the verb suggest.
Click here to see more vocabulary lessons.
Click here to see more grammar lessons.

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