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.

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

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