Is there a difference in meaning between the words 'explain' and 'explicate', or are they interchangeable?

It seems that explicate is just a very formal (pretentious?) version of explain, that is used in philosophical and artistic contexts. Every time I've seen the word explicate used, it could be replaced by explain with no loss of clarity.

  • Explicate I find is used more in a scientific context and it is quite formal. In everyday use, however, 'explain' would be more appropriate. – Dimitri Nov 8 '13 at 3:51
  • @Dimitri So you would say they have the same meaning, just expressed in different registers? – Potato Nov 8 '13 at 3:51
  • Well context is important in this case and not to mention formality. In any case, you may use explain for any purpose, whether be it scientific, philosophical or something as simple as using stove! Don't over-think it too much! :) – Dimitri Nov 8 '13 at 5:43
  • Just an observation. All words have distinct meanings (often of slight nuances), otherwise there would be no need for them. Often, years of time, or differing cultures, etc., obliterate the differences. But, if one were around in the initial formulation of the word, the differences would be clear. Latin also has this same distinction. These differing words are often generated in a different context. Then there are those words that remain the same in spelling, but have different meanings. – user89599 Aug 27 '14 at 20:15
  • There is nothing pretentious or formal about explicate or using explicate. – Drew Sep 16 '14 at 20:55

The fundamental difference between explain and explicate is the presence of the 'person' in the first case.

Simpler things first:

You explain it to someone.
You explicate it.

Google Web definitions:

explain verb
1. make (an idea, situation, or problem) clear to someone by describing it in more detail or revealing relevant facts or ideas. "they explained that their lives centered on the religious rituals"

explicate verb
1. analyze and develop (an idea or principle) in detail. "attempting to explicate the relationship between crime and economic forces"

An 'explanation' is essentially tailored to the listener/ reader's need to understand, while an 'explication' is a mere setting forth of the finer details.

The words can be and, are indeed sometimes, used interchangeably. You can just explain something (with no explicit 'other person'), and you can explicate to someone.

ChicagoBusiness, Nov. 04

… the National Park Service has concluded Pullman is nationally significant in that it explicates industrial, labor and African-American history in ways not represented at other national park sites. ()

Inquirer, Nov. 02

… Palace mouthpieces yesterday continued to explicate on the theme of the President and the pork barrel, …

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    I'm not sure this is correct. Other dictionaries (e.g. thefreedictionary.com) define explain as "To make plain or comprehensible." Further, in common usage, it doesn't seem like there needs to be a target. A professor could explain a poem to an empty room, and I'm sure I've heard of books explaining things (with no particular recipient indicated). – Potato Nov 8 '13 at 15:59
  • I see you that mention this in your answer. But it seems you simply retracting what you just said, which leaves me confused. Are you or are you not claiming a distinction? – Potato Nov 8 '13 at 16:00
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    @Potato You did use the infinitive, didn't you :) "explain a poem to an empty room"! Books, of course, explain because they have a target audience by default; you don't write a book for no one to read it. As I said, the distinction does exist, though it is not widely-recognized, which is the reason for this question in the first place -- doesn't that sound but natural? – Kris Nov 9 '13 at 6:38
  • You mixed up a couple of things, IMO. +1 for a possible difference in level of detail and analysis (possible, because an explanation can also be detailed and precise). -1 for saying that one targets a person and is sensitive to audience understanding and background, while the other "is a mere setting forth of the finer details". I don't agree with the latter claim. – Drew Sep 16 '14 at 21:02
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    @Drew Those words earning your -1 essentially say the same thing as the "explain verb 1. " entry cited above. :) – Kris Sep 17 '14 at 5:57

Nah, they are different.

Explicate will often be used when you are explaining something complex or philosophically deep.

It's true when you said that you would use explicate in academics, politics, finance, philosophic context and stuff. It indicates a very detailed explanation (including reasons why things are the way they are), and it is sometimes a complex one.

"He explicated the nature of political economy on foreign central governments."

Explain can be used for that same purpose or more common purposes, such as explaining instructions or very basic academic ideas. This may not include deep thinking and understanding of reasons behind ideas.

"He explained how to use the grill."

Also, I don't think explicate is a very formal form of explain though. You can use explain in formal writings too.

  • So you would say 'explicated' is the same as 'gave a detailed explanation'? – Potato Nov 8 '13 at 3:58
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    Yea, indeed. That's why, perhaps, explicate is not often used in daily English. – Safira Nov 8 '13 at 4:00
  • First time I have seen it in my many, many years of reading everyday English so it must be a word used in Science – mplungjan Nov 8 '13 at 6:36
  • @mplungjan: Yeah that's true. Explicate is not really used by "normal" people. – Safira Nov 8 '13 at 7:17
  • @Safira There are lots of people who are not 'normal' by your definition (~1,310,000 instances of usage). – Kris Nov 8 '13 at 7:23

Well people, with words like these - explain vs explicate - you have to go "OG" and pull out the old Oxford English Dictionary for the LATIN and/or OLD ENGLISH origin. With EXPLAIN you have the Latin origin 'planus', or 'plain'. Now we need to infer; to explain means to make something complicated plain or understandable. We are literally 'taking out' (thus the 'ex')the plain or uncomplicated part of what is being discussed. With EXPLICATE, we have the Latin origin 'plicare', or 'to fold'. Thus we are 'taking out' the folds of what is being discussed. I, therefore, would explain a basketball play (pick and roll), and would explicate a poem. It should be noted that explicate is word associated with literature in common speech.


To me, explicate has more of a connotation of develop or elaborate, that is, to explain in detail. You can give a summary explanation of something, but an explication gets into the nitty gritty and is typically precise.

And WordWeb gives develop and formulate as synonyms for explicate, but not for explain (for which the only synonyms it gives are excuse and explicate).

  • Care to explain why the downvote? – Drew Nov 17 '14 at 2:19

One dictionary has "explicate" tagged with "formal". Another place adds that to "explicate" has the sense of going into greater detail than "explain".

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    Which dictionaries? – Potato Nov 8 '13 at 5:00

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