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What is the difference between "explain" and "describe"? When to use one over the other?

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closed as general reference by Carlo_R., tchrist, MετάEd, FumbleFingers, Matt Эллен Oct 11 '12 at 11:01

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Can you say what you have found in a dictionary. If you can't, the question may be closed as general reference. –  Barrie England Oct 10 '12 at 14:41
    
de·scribe   /dɪˈskraɪb/ Show Spelled[dih-skrahyb] Show IPA verb (used with object), de·scribed, de·scrib·ing. 1. to tell or depict in written or spoken words; give an account of: He described the accident very carefully. 2. to pronounce, as by a designating term, phrase, or the like; label: There are few people who may be described as geniuses. 3. to indicate; be a sign of; denote: Conceit, in many cases, describes a state of serious emotional insecurity. 4. to represent or delineate by a picture or figure. 5. Geometry . to draw or trace the outline of: to describe an arc. –  Peter Kim Oct 10 '12 at 14:52
    
ex·plain   /ɪkˈspleɪn/ Show Spelled[ik-spleyn] Show IPA verb (used with object) 1. to make plain or clear; render understandable or intelligible: to explain an obscure point. 2. to make known in detail: to explain how to do something. 3. to assign a meaning to; interpret: How can you explain such a silly remark? 4. to make clear the cause or reason of; account for: I cannot explain his strange behavior. –  Peter Kim Oct 10 '12 at 14:53
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It seems that "describe" is more often used when you try to visualize something whereas "explain" is more close to elaborate on something to make it easier to understand. –  Peter Kim Oct 10 '12 at 14:55
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I agree with Barrie. I'll add that without a piece of discourse, how can we determine whether the words are merely descriptive ("It's blue and long and runny") and them what's both descriptive and explanatory ("It entered the house at 9 p.m., slithered up the stairs, bit the sleeping Hepzibah on the nose, morphed into an angel, and then flew out the bedroom window. I was lying next to her, thinking about what kind of Dagwood I'd be wolfing down in an hour or so, and that's why I know how she died.")? –  user21497 Oct 10 '12 at 14:59

3 Answers 3

I think an explanation is a specific description of something. Describing is kind of an overarching verb, and explaining is describing with a certain goal in mind. To describe is to give an account of something and any details pertaining to that something. To explain is to give an account of something and any details pertaining to that something with the goal of clarifying it to someone, or making something easier to understand, or making some concept known.

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Except that you can describe a painting but not explain it. –  Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 10 '12 at 15:32
    
@RoddyoftheFrozenPeas Except that sometimes you can. –  Mr Lister Oct 10 '12 at 16:04
    
"Explain the Mona Lisa." ...? I don't think so. You can explain things about the painting -- color choices, history, whatever. –  Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 10 '12 at 16:07
    
Yeparootie, you can. You can explain what it means (if anything beyond color and balance and design), and you can tell the world what you think that Mona Lisa smile means, and why the artist chose to paint her (twice, it seems, once as a mere lass and once as a ripe and enigmatic belle de jour). –  user21497 Oct 10 '12 at 16:44
    
I have no idea what the first word in your comment means. I assume it means 'yes.' That being said, saying, unqualified, "explain the Mona Lisa" is ambiguous and odd and not something you'd see outside an art composition course in university. "Explain the photograph," "explain the picture," "explain the color" -- if told to do any of these things, my first response would be "explain what about the photograph/picture/color?" Describe is a better term in any of these scenarios due to the visual aspect of the subject under discussion. –  Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 10 '12 at 18:49

Describe is used mostly to call for statements about the sensory experience of the respondent.

Describe that painting.
Describe what you were feeling.
Describe the experience of playing on Stack Exchange.

Explain calls for an analysis of mechanisms, motives, justifications or relationships, many of which are not available to the senses.

Explain how an internal combustion engine works.
Explain the Peter Principle.
Explain yourself!

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I agree with @bib; imho you describe an object, and explain a process.

Explain is suited when it is an answer to How? or Why?

Describe is more appropriate for answers to What? or When?

Though What is a bit ambiguous and context-dependent:

What were you trying to achieve? (explain)

What kind of lunch did you eat? (describe)

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No. You can describe a process. I work in IT, believe me when I say there's a difference between describing a process and explaining it. To explain a process would be to show the intention behind it, where as to describe it would be to show the steps of the process. However, to explain how a process works is to describe it. –  itsbruce Oct 10 '12 at 19:35

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