Which of the following expressions is correct?

Explain me.

Explain to me.

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

  • 7
    "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
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 15:41
  • 4
    I've never heard "explain me" used in any serious fashion. Where have you heard this?
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 1:21
  • 2
    @BenBrocka: I've heard it on the internet. You can google "explain me" to see a great number of results. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 9:06
  • how about riddle me this? Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 19:48
  • Short answer: "Explain to me"
    – Shafizadeh
    Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 9:22

6 Answers 6


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.

  • 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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 13:25
  • 3
    Erm... explain me that? Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 13:39
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    Jonathan Swift wrote to Sheridan "If your worship will please to explain me this rebus", suggesting explain can be ditransitive.
    – Henry
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 13:44
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    @FumbleFingers: Weasel words now inserted. Commented Dec 13, 2011 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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 15:08

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


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,


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


show what it is to me

*Thanks to FumbleFingers for the info

  • 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". Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 16:50
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    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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 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. Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 13:15
  • youtube.com/watch?v=6vMO3XmNXe4#t=13 Now I'd like to do a parody where Neo puts Morpheus on display.
    – NiteCyper
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 10:55

"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.

  • 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? Commented Dec 13, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 18:27
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    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". Commented Dec 13, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 15:10
  • 1
    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. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 17:19

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.

  • 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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 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. Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 16:41
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    I wish I could do graphics as well as you. Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 17:24

Slim's answer is good. Let's build on it a bit – mind the punctuation:

Explain it to me.

Explain me.
Incorrect / You won't hear it.

Explain me this. Correct.

Can you explain me how to get there?

Now, if we want to get grammatical, we can dissect the sentence to analyze what's going on in terms of structures. But, really, that is optional. The short story is that most of them are correct because you'll hear them and they mean something, while the incorrect one is never heard and doesn't really mean anything.

If we want to analyze it… Then the key is that it's a transitive verb, i.e.: it needs an object, which will be the thing being explained. Let's generalize:

Explain something to someone.

But you won't say or hear:

Explain someone.

(Well, you could say it, but that would be the exception rather than the rule. e.g.: Explain Chopin to me. if you talk to a pianist who knows that composer really well.)


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

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