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It is common to speak of "elaborating on (or upon) a topic." However, I have been told that this is appropriate only when some explanation has already been given; if no information is yet known, then the proper usage would be "elaborating the topic." Is it true or false?

For example, if the president issued a statement, and I wanted to explain why he did so, I might say, "I would like to elaborate the motive behind the president's statement." It wouldn't be correct to say "elaborate on the motive," since nothing is yet known about the motive.

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Yes, there may be a distinction between "elaborate" used with a normal direct object and "elaborate on" used with a prepositional object: the former, where it is used, tends to mean "create, establish", whereas the latter tends to mean "give further details about". If you look at these examples from the Europarl corpus:


you'll see examples such as:

"must outline a concrete strategy ... and elaborate a detailed investment plan"

where the implication does appear to be create a plan, not develop one already in existence, vs:

"elaborate a little on what you said".

where the idea is "go into more detail".

As an informal intuitive observation, I would have said that the first usage isn't very common. However, I did a quick check on Google ngram and the figures appear to belie my intuition:

Relative frequency of 'elaborate' vs 'elaborate (up)on'

If these figures are anything to go by, "elaborate on" appears to be a relatively recent innovation, vs a time when "elaborate" was practically always used with a 'straight' direct object.

Interestingly, as testimony to this being a relatively recent innovation, Websters 1913 edition doesn't appear to mention the possibility of "elaborate" with 'on', but gives the following definition and example of transitive 'elaborate':

"To perfect with painstaking; to improve or refine with labor and study, or by successive operations; as, to elaborate a painting or a literary work."

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Wow, thanks! I'm not sure how that fits with the examples in the Oxford cited by @FumbleFingers. (By the way, I think you meant; "the former, where it is used, etc.") – Dave Jul 11 '11 at 1:15
Sorry, yes I do -- corrected. – Neil Coffey Jul 11 '11 at 1:39

I stand to be corrected, as ever, but I never heard of this distinction. OP's suggested shift in meaning (only use "on" if the subject has already been partially explained) sounds somewhat fanciful to me. The real difference is that the verb elaborate has two related but distinct meanings, only one of which implies the act of explaining.

This definition from Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary gives the usages I'm familiar with. For definition 1 (explain something in more detail) the verb is most commonly followed by "on", but this is largely a matter of style. Definition 2 (develop, or add more detail) is never followed by "on".

Here is a paragraph that uses elaborate as a transitive verb three times in one paragraph, where only the last is followed by "on". I believe the writer is quite concious of the two different usages above, and correctly applies them.

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The examples given there are actually the opposite of the way I would have expected! – Dave Jul 10 '11 at 20:39
@Dave: Yes, but are you still hoping for confirmation of that (to me, rather peculiar) 'nuance' of usage/meaning dependent on whether the word "on" is present? – FumbleFingers Jul 10 '11 at 20:51
If it's wrong, I can't really expect confirmation! – Dave Jul 10 '11 at 22:16
@Dave: I found an example which I think illustrates the "alternative meaning" of elaborate you're implying (definition 2 in my link). The key point is that second usage doesn't imply explaining anything to anyone - it just means "to develop" in a general sense, possibly as a solo planning exercise. – FumbleFingers Jul 11 '11 at 2:15

Phrasal verbs very rarely mean the same thing as the words that they comprise.

"I would like to elaborate the motive behind the president's statement." uses the verb "to elaborate", so the intent of the sentence is to declare that the speaker wishes to make the object more elaborate -- he wants to make the make the motive more elaborate.

"I would like to elaborate on the motive behind the president's statement." uses the (phrasal) verb "to elaborate on", so the intent of the sentence is to declare that the speaker wishes to give details of the object -- he wishes to explain the motive in more detail.

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