Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Which of the following expressions is correct?

-Explain me.
-Explain to me.

I know "Explain it to me" is correct, but I want to know which one of the above is valid.

share|improve this question
1  
"Explain me" is incorrect (as noted, and with exceptions noted, below), but it is an incredibly common turn of phrase among native speakers of romance and slavic languages, and perhaps other languages too. –  Marcin Dec 13 '11 at 15:41
1  
I've never heard "explain me" used in any serious fashion. Where have you heard this? –  Ben Brocka Dec 14 '11 at 1:21
    
@BenBrocka: I've heard it on the internet. You can google "explain me" to see a great number of results. –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar Dec 14 '11 at 9:06
add comment

5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Explain is normally monotransitive in that it typically occurs only with a single direct object, as in ‘I will now explain the mysteries of the universe.’ If we want to reveal who is to be the beneficiary of such wisdom, we must use a preposition phrase and say ‘I will now explain the mysteries of the universe to the assembled throng.’

It follows that the sentence ‘Explain me’ can, in most contexts, only, and most improbably, be an invitation to elaborate on the speaker’s personality in such a way that we will all better understand the speaker's behaviour. ‘Explain to me’, on the other hand, requires a direct object, such as ‘the mysteries of the universe’, to make any sense. There may be some circumstances in which to is omitted, making the pronoun an indirect object, but in contemporary English they are not numerous.

share|improve this answer
    
I don't think the word monotransitive explains anything - all it means is the verb usually has a single object being explained. That's true of more "typical" monotransitive verbs like bite, buy, break, eat, but explain is more like give, show, lend, which often have a "secondary" object - and don't necessarily have any preposition in common usage. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 13:25
1  
Erm... explain me that? –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 13:39
1  
Jonathan Swift wrote to Sheridan "If your worship will please to explain me this rebus", suggesting explain can be ditransitive. –  Henry Dec 13 '11 at 13:44
1  
@FumbleFingers: Weasel words now inserted. –  Barrie England Dec 13 '11 at 13:46
1  
@Barrie England: Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying your summary of common usage is incorrect - of course you're right that we normally prefix the "secondary object" (those receiving the explanation) with "to". I just think it's a bit circular to say that's because the word is monotransitive. It seems more accurate to me to just say we normally use it monotransitively - but that doesn't have to be the case, and there are plenty of similar verbs where we habitually drop the preposition. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 15:08
show 2 more comments

Dear Dr. Freud,

I am having an identity crisis. I no longer understand myself.
I would like to book an appointment with you so that you can explain me to myself.

yours sincerely,
Mr. Smith

Or

Child: do you like my picture?
Parent: It's lovely! Why don't you explain to me what it is?

It appears to depend on the context.

Explain is a transitive verb (it take an object), so you can say "please explain cartography", or "explain apples", etc. It is also a ditransitive* verb, so it can take two objects,

e.g.

explain to the tree what it is

object 1: the tree
object 2: it

explain to him how to do it

object 1: him
object 2: it

Which is just like how you might use show

show [to] me what it is

vs.

show what it is to me


*Thanks to FumbleFingers for the info

share|improve this answer
2  
Logically I'd have been happier if the technical term for this kind of verb was trivalent (it can apply to up to three "things" at once - the one doing it, what's being done, and who it's done to). But in fact they're ditransitive verbs, in that they can have two "objects" as well as a "subject". –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 16:50
    
@FumbleFingers Thanks, that most enlightening! –  Matt Эллен Dec 13 '11 at 16:56
2  
I think that show, for example, is just as much "ditransitive" as explain. And in your example, show him how to do it would be universally acceptable as an alternative to explain to him how to do it. In the end I think it largely comes down to idiomatic usage. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 22:52
    
In some dialects or speaker-groups, there is occasionally the usage: "Now, explain me this!" followed by a question. It is considered incorrect by practically any grammarian or English teacher, but it is still sometimes used by native speakers of English. –  Nathan Ellenfield Dec 22 '11 at 13:15
add comment

"Explain me" in the context you probably are thinking of, would be pidgin English.

The only way it would make sense if it meant that "me" was the thing you want explained. "Explain mathematics", "Explain cars", "Explain me".

"Explain to me" is perfectly fine, either as part of a sentence...

Explain to me why you did that.

... or with the rest of the sentence provided by context.

I don't understand why you did that. Explain to me.

share|improve this answer
    
I think "pidgin" is a bit extreme. The author (Dame) Rebecca West surely counts as a competent speaker, yet she was happy to write Now will you explain me that? –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 18:19
    
"Explain me that" is different again, I would suggest. "That" being the subject of the sentence; yet still it sounds wrong. In a book such as that, it sounds archaic. In the mouth of a foreign tourist, it sounds pidgin. –  slim Dec 13 '11 at 18:27
1  
No, "that" isn't the subject - it's the "primary object", if you will (as opposed to the "secondary object" me, which could validly be omitted). The subject is "you". –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 22:23
    
Yes, apologies. But it is a re-ordered version of "Explain that to me" (where the to has just popped in there again) –  slim Dec 14 '11 at 15:10
    
You seem to imply "Explain that to me" is somehow the "original, underlying" sentence, but that simply isn't so. I'm sure "Show me that" is far more common than "Show that to me", for example, but neither version is any more "basic" than the other. It's just that with "show" we discard the preposition in one version, but with "explain" most people want to keep it in both versions. –  FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 17:19
add comment

The meaning of "correct" here is a bit slippery. People usually say explain to me...

enter image description here

I don't think the word "to" is either grammatically or logically necessary - we don't normally bother with it in give me, show me, lend me for example. But given we normally do include the preposition in explain to me, OP should be aware that some people will think he's ill-educated if he doesn't follow the majority usage.

EDIT: Being in "chart mode" here, I'll just include a related construction give it [to] me, where this chart clearly shows how usage has shifted over the past couple of centuries to favour including the preposition...

enter image description here

As with explain, the primary argument for including "to" is simply that this is what most other people do. And the primary argument against doing it is that other people tend to think if you don't copy the most common usage, you're not a competent speaker.

share|improve this answer
    
The key term here is the Dative Alternation, which allows the order Su Vb IO DO as well as the order Su Vb DO to IO. Explain does not govern this alternation; give does. The rest is sociolinguistics. –  John Lawler Dec 13 '11 at 15:38
    
@John: Agreed Dative Alternation gets more "down and dirty" with what's going on here than Barry's monotransitive verb, but clearly usage changes, as give it me above shows. Exactly the same transition has happened with show it me. I've no idea if there's a general tendency to use more prepositions nowadays - but I imagine you'll know the answer to that, and I would be interested. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 15:56
    
I don't do that kind of linguistics; that's the sociolinguists' job. I'm a syntactician and semanticist, primarily. Like Jim McCawley, I don't try to separate syntax and semantics; they are intertwined. But I don't do recent history. –  John Lawler Dec 13 '11 at 16:26
    
@John: oic. Well, I bet you do more of all kinds than me, anyway! As a dilettante I can't help thinking that since English has progressively discarded lots of inflections over the years, there might be a tendency to discard superfluous prepositions as well. But for all I know it might be that we're substituting prepositions for inflected forms, so as one goes down the other goes up. Or they may be totally unrelated tendencies, of course. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 16:41
    
I wish I could do graphics as well as you. –  John Lawler Dec 13 '11 at 17:24
show 4 more comments

Depending on the context, explain me is as correct as tell me. Both make perfect sense to me.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.