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From Middle English explanen, from Old French explaner, from Latin explanō (I flatten, spread out, make plain or clear, explain), from ex- (out) + planō (I flatten, make level), from planus (level, plain); see plain and plane. Compare esplanade, splanade. Displaced Old English reċċan.


  • IPA(key): /ɪkˈspleɪn/, /ɛkˈspleɪn/
  • Audio (US):(file)
  • Rhymes: -eɪn



explain (third-person singular simple present explains, present participle explaining, simple past and past participle explained)

  1. (transitive, intransitive) To make plain, manifest, or intelligible; to clear of obscurity; to illustrate the meaning of.
    She is about to explain a chapter of the Bible to the Sunday School students.
    She tried to explain but he wouldn’t listen.
    • 1909, Archibald Marshall [pseudonym; Arthur Hammond Marshall], “A Court Ball”, in The Squire’s Daughter, New York, N.Y.: Dodd, Mead and Company, published 1919, →OCLC, page 9:
      The boy became volubly friendly and bubbling over with unexpected humour and high spirits. He tried to persuade Cicely to stay away from the ball-room for a fourth dance. Nobody would miss them, he explained.
    • 2012 March, Brian Hayes, “Pixels or Perish”, in American Scientist, volume 100, number 2, page 106:
      Drawings and pictures are more than mere ornaments in scientific discourse. Blackboard sketches, geological maps, diagrams of molecular structure, astronomical photographs, MRI images, the many varieties of statistical charts and graphs: These pictorial devices are indispensable tools for presenting evidence, for explaining a theory, for telling a story.
  2. (transitive) To give a valid excuse for past behavior.
    • 2013 June 7, David Simpson, “Fantasy of navigation”, in The Guardian Weekly, volume 188, number 26, page 36:
      It is tempting to speculate about the incentives or compulsions that might explain why anyone would take to the skies in [the] basket [of a balloon]: perhaps out of a desire to escape the gravity of this world or to get a preview of the next; […].
  3. (obsolete) To make flat, smooth out.
  4. (obsolete) To unfold or make visible.
    • April 14, 1684, John Evelyn, a letter sent to the Royal Society concerning the damage done to his gardens by the preceding winter
      The horse-chestnut is [] ready to explain its leaf.
  5. (intransitive) To make something plain or intelligible.
    • 2012, Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument”, in William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, editors, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology[1], page 56:
      It is easy to modify the account to take this into account, by explaining not just in terms of a set of reasons but in terms of a set of reason–weight pairs.
    • 2019 July 9, Patrick Gathara, “The problem is not 'negative' Western media coverage of Africa”, in Al Jazeera English:
      Like their Western counterparts, local media engages in shorthand - it reports rather than explains.



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