To put it another way: the language of explanations


by Liz Walter

In this post, I am going to talk about the language of explaining, something we all have to do from time to time.

I will start with some slightly more formal near-synonyms for the verb explain. If you clarify something, you make it clear, usually when it wasn’t clear before, and if you demystify a subject, you make something that seemed very difficult, strange or obscure much easier to understand. If you enlighten another person, you make them understand something they didn’t know about before:

Could you clarify exactly what you mean by ‘practical intelligence’?

Amy’s blog helped to demystify the whole dissertation process.

He went vegan after his friends enlightened him about the suffering involved in animal farming.

There are a few phrasal verbs connected with explaining. If you get through to someone, you make them understand something, while if you drum something into someone, you make them understand or learn it by repeating it many times. If a subject is very complicated, you might break it down by explaining one part of it at a time:

These health messages don’t seem to be getting through to the general public.

My mum drummed it into me never to get into a car with a stranger.

The financial system was very complex, but the trainer broke it down for us.

Sometimes we use phrases to show that we are going to explain something very clearly, for example Just to be (absolutely/crystal) clear or Just so there’s no (room for) doubt / Just so no-one’s in any doubt … :

Just to be crystal clear about this: any homework received after Friday will not be marked.

Just so no-one’s in any doubt, the office will be closed on Monday.

Some phrases are used when someone is having difficulty understanding. If you explain something in words of one syllable, you say it in very simple language. If you are exasperated with someone you think ought to be able to understand, you might ask if you need to draw them a diagram, and if you spell something out to someone, you explain it very clearly, even though you think it should be obvious:

Make sure you explain it to them in words of one syllable.

Do you understand my point now, or do you need me to draw you a diagram?

Let me spell it out for you: no work, no money.

It is also common to explain things by repeating what we have already said in a different way. We use phrases like To put it another way … or In other words to do this:

They’ve only invited the very highest-level managers. To put it another way, they don’t want people like us!

The last train left at six. In other words, we’re stuck here.

I hope this post has explained words and phrases for explaining well enough! Let me know if you can think of any others.

33 thoughts on “To put it another way: the language of explanations

  1. Ameur

    Everyday is a new day.So we are always learning new things and acquiring new techniques that may help improve our skills.Thank you very much for the very interesting vocabuly used in the language explanation.

    1. Akrem

      Thanks alot for this, it is very helpful to make a lesson that gives bunch of expressions that are somewho connected, and turn around the same situation. Keep it up.

  2. BRIKI

    In French you express the same idea saying ‘make a drawing’ instead of diagram..Can ‘to drum something into someone’ be replaced by ‘inculcate formal verb?I think so.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, ‘inculcate’ is similar. It’s very formal, and often has a slightly negative connotation, implying that someone has been brainwashed.

  3. Maryem Salama

    This is absolutely awesome, and I read it time after time in endless pleasure. Some expressions I have never encountered before, what else? Liz, you are great.

  4. Denis

    I’d add the phrase ‘shed light on sth’, which means to help to explain a situation.

    Dear Liz,
    Could you possibly clarify one thing for me?
    I’ve recently encountered on the web the following question written by a native English speaker: ‘What would you say is your greatest strength?’.
    I’ve been taught that when we form a question, it’s enough to change its first part. Having done that, we leave the second part the way it is in a regular statement. For instance,
    ‘Could you tell me what your greatest strength is?’ (correct)
    ‘Could you tell me what is your greatest strength?’ (incorrect)
    ‘What would you say your greatest strength is?’ (correct, because the modal would is already positioned right after the question word what and before the pronoun you in the first part of the question, which in itself gives this sentence the form of a question)
    ‘What would you say is your greatest strength?’ (incorrect, because the question is already formed in its first part – ‘What WOULD you say…’)

    Thus, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind kindly shedding light on this subject from a grammatical point of view.

    1. Liz Walter

      I think in this question ‘What would you say’ is being treated as a noun phrase, so essentially it’s the same as ‘What is your greatest strength?’.

      1. Denis

        Hmm… A noun phrase? It’s a very interesting noun phrase, though. 🙂
        I’m inclined to believe you. Ta for your precise & concise demystification (a new word for this dictionary, by the by) of my bemusement. It makes sense. On the contrary, it doesn’t say ‘What you would say is…’. It uses ‘would’ in a way that is designed for a question, and then it uses ‘is’ in exactly the same way.
        If the formation of this question starts from the second part of it – ‘…is your greatest strength?’ rather than ‘…your greatest strength is?’ – and the first part is being treated as a standard noun phrase, why doesn’t it say ‘What you would say is your greatest strength?’?

        Still a little bit bewildered. : \

  5. Karly Olvera

    Hello Liz:

    I’m glad you explained us this topic. I’d like to know if any of these phrases: in words of one syllable, draw them a diagram or spell something, all of them could soud a bit rude as I tell them to someone.

    Thank you

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, if you use them directly to someone, they would definitely be a bit rude – implying that the person is a bit stupid!

  6. this isa great post. its like a way i can read to drum many vocabs i have not seen for ages into me. thanks for the good post and useful and easy to-understand explanations of words, so i can brush on my British English vocabulary again. wonderful!

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