Why do people say "explain to me", not "explain me"?



Is there any grammatical rule to know which verbs can (or better, must) be sometimes followed by "to"? Some examples are:

  • Please explain to me why...
  • She said to me that...

I'm aware I could also say "explain me", but such thing would mean something like "explain what I am" or "give an explanation of myself". However, you could never use "say me". In other cases, it seems both formats are acceptable. An example would be:

  • "Show me" and "show it to me"

Is there any rule to explain this?

claudio sepulveda

Posted 2016-02-16T16:56:40.553

Reputation: 1 368

Question was closed 2016-04-29T01:28:46.940

2@BiscuitBoy English. The question isn't only fot the OP, but also for future users with the same concern. FWIW, the OP didn't seem to be a native Spanish speaker either. – None – 2016-02-16T17:12:35.630

@BiscuitBoy I believe there's a duplicate. – None – 2016-02-16T17:15:06.407

3Why on earth has this question been migrated? It's probably too broad for ELU rather than too basic. I'd just point out that (1) there are different definitions of ditransitivity, some of which include say 'show' in 'he showed me the correct method'; (2) not all of those verbs in the broadest group undergo the dative transformation ('he showed me the correct method' <==> 'he showed the correct method to me' but 'he explained the correct method to me' <=/=> *'he explained me the correct method'; ... – Edwin Ashworth – 2016-02-16T17:39:56.573

1(3) some verbs, not in ditransitive usages, (eg 'say' as in 'said to me that') need a transitivising preposition; others ('inform') must not have one, and with yet others the situation changes when they undergo the dative transformation. – Edwin Ashworth – 2016-02-16T17:44:33.023

@EdwinAshworth Migration to ELL isn't just for basic questions - folks learning English have some very sophisticated questions. Usually ELL is a better fit when the answer needs to be more focused on practical usage than grammar and syntax. Ditransitivity is an interesting topic, but not all aspects of that topic are particularly useful to a learner. Some parts are, and can be helpful in identifying other verbs that they should look out for, but I don't understand it well enough myself to simplify it. – ColleenV – 2016-02-16T18:16:16.343

@ColleenV My question was 'Why was this question migrated?' Apart from the 'too broad' issue (which I'm sure is still an issue on ELL), the level is at least ELU-standard – and probably needs a doctoral thesis as a decent answer. – Edwin Ashworth – 2016-02-16T18:26:20.597

2@EdwinAshworth But a doctoral thesis is not what Claudio probably needs. Claudio probably needs some help understanding a very common mistake that folks not fluent in English make. This question is phrased as an ELL question (in my opinion), particularly because the asker is looking for grammatical rules and didn't mention anything about ditransitivity or dative transforms. – ColleenV – 2016-02-16T18:33:56.103

@ColleenV The question is 'Why do people say “explain to me”, not “explain me”?' rogermue here gets as far as saying 'I can't give a simple and clear reason why we have two types. Type 1 might be a simplification of type 2, but was used only with frequent Germanic verbs. But this is a mere guess.' ELU is not a forum restricted to answering questions solely to satisfy a particular enquirer's requests, but is aimed at discovering the best explanation of usages that are mentioned. For a much wider audience. – Edwin Ashworth – 2016-02-16T19:27:42.583

I agree with many points Edwin Ashworth made and the point made by ColleenV. After reading the question, I've tried to formulate an answer, but to no avail. This is basically because of the false premises made by the OP. (Please read on, it's interesting.) -- The way I see it, the OP asks a) Why do people say so?; and b) Is there any grammatical rule to know which verbs can be used as such? And even though a) is off-topic on ELL (IMHO), b) is probably worth pursuing, so I did, and soon realized that the OP assumed that for these verbs, if we can say [ S V D to I ], we can say [ S V I D ], too. – Damkerng T. – 2016-02-16T19:32:55.093

@EdwinAshworth If there's an issue with a particular question getting migrated, it probably should be taken up on [meta.english.se]. We have no control over what y'all migrate here other than bouncing it back if it's not on-topic here. This question is actually on-topic here, even though it's difficult to answer. It's probably on-topic at EL&U too, but parts of your community thought it was better asked here for some reason. – ColleenV – 2016-02-16T19:35:17.603

(cont.) But there are more subtle points that allow (or disallow) this "dative alternative" (aka "dative movement"). Sometimes it's important what kinds of the objects are (people, or things, for that matter), sometimes it depends on which sense of the verb we use. Compare: a) The cathedral clearly owes a great deal to French design, b) The cathedral clearly owes French design a great deal. Only a) is a valid sentence. – Damkerng T. – 2016-02-16T19:35:31.223

(cont.) Note that it's not the OP's false to assume this. We all want the language we learn to be logical and readily explainable by rules. IMHO, it's probably the best to learn each verb at a time. Some grammar books may group small sets of related verbs together and explain each group at a time (e.g., give, send, take, bring; advise, recommend, suggest; report, explain, and so on). – Damkerng T. – 2016-02-16T19:49:38.170

Mr. Ashworth, Thank you for your kind reply. Could you "explain to me" what ELU stands for? Thanks again. Regards, – None – 2016-02-16T18:41:41.347


@claudiosepulveda - ELU is "English Language and Usage," a Stack Exchange for etymologists. ELL is "English Language Learners," a Stack Exchange site for adults who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. People learning about both sites at the same time are often pointed to this ELU meta post.

– J.R. – 2016-02-16T21:47:40.700

I think we already have an answer to this question - http://ell.stackexchange.com/a/57955/3463 So possibly it is a duplicate.

– Man_From_India – 2016-03-02T16:55:06.227

@EdwinAshworth: Can you clarify your point (3) above? If you have a link to an answer or something, where the following questions of mine are answered, I'd like to read that. Otherwise, can you answer these questions in comments: By 'say' needing a transitivizing preposition, do you mean 'me' is the direct object in 'said to me that...' (then what kind of object is the 'that...' clause there?)? And why isn't that a ditransitive usage? // Also, I didn't understand what you meant here: "with yet others the situation changes when they undergo the dative transformation." – HeWhoMustBeNamed – 2020-03-08T15:31:14.310

1(0) No. (a) No; I'm using a 'transitivising preposition' as 'a preposition permitting a recipient to be mentioned in the construction', keeping clear of the "Is X a DO?" bunfight. I've actually seen the term 'pseudo-transitivising preposition' used. (b) Ditransitive usages don't include PPs in one form; in fact they have two NPs, as DO & IO. He gave me the book. Some would exclude the isoformal He baked me a cake, calling it a benefactive. It uses 'for' in the dative transformation. // (c1) 'He spoke to me last Thursday' (c2) 'He informed [] me last Thursday' ... – Edwin Ashworth – 2020-03-08T15:56:16.947

1(c3) 'He told [] me the news last Thursday' <==> 'He told the news to me last Thursday.' / For completeness, 'He explained the problem to me last Thursday' is not a dative transformation; 'He explained me the news' is unacceptable (ie 'explain' is not a ditransitive verb). Which restates rather than answers the question. – Edwin Ashworth – 2020-03-08T16:01:48.743



Because underneath it all, the word meant to flatten {something} out and that meaning acquired a figurative meaning "to make clear, easily understood"; the sense that it is a figurative use has been lost with time.

The direct object of "explain" is thus the thing being explained, not the person to whom the explanation is being given.

English is a Germanic-Latinate hybrid.


Posted 2016-02-16T16:56:40.553

Reputation: 116 610


According to George Yule, "[w]ith verbs such as describe or explain, we put indirect object after a preposition, not after the verb"

She described the thief to the police.

They explained the plan to us.

Other verbs which fall in this category are admit, announce, mention, murmer, report, shout, suggest, and whisper.

You see they are often verbs of speaking.

She said "Hello" to me. (NOT she said me "Hello".)


Posted 2016-02-16T16:56:40.553

Reputation: 7 422


book, buy, get, cook, keep, bring, make, pour, save, find, give, lend, offer, pass, post, read, sell, send, show, promise, tell

With these verbs, a noun or pronoun right after them has something like an implied "to" or "for" in front of it - it's built-in to the meaning of the verb. (Except keep - e.g. keep me in the loop no preposition works).

Any other verb, you need the "to" or "for" explicitly expressed.


Posted 2016-02-16T16:56:40.553

Reputation: 31 841


The normal verb construction is "Can you get me a newspaper?"

Another type is "Can you explain this sentence to me?".

Type 2 is mostly used with Latin verbs such as

announce confide deliver demonstrate describe dictate distribute entrust explain introduce prefer propose relate suggest (this is only a selection). Also to say, which is no Latin verb.

I can't give a simple and clear reason why we have two types. Type 1 might be a simplification of type 2, but was used only with frequent Germanic verbs. But this is a mere guess.


Posted 2016-02-16T16:56:40.553

Reputation: 8 304

1There's also the complication that some verbs (called by some benefactives) taking two objects ('Can you get me a newspaper?') have 'for' in the transformation: 'Can you get a newspaper for me?') (and in fact the transformation may not be available: *'He finished her the cleaning.' And again, 'She's costing me a fortune' doesn't have a prepositional transformation. – Edwin Ashworth – 2016-02-16T19:54:46.900


What an interesting question! I can only add this: be literal. In your example,' "Show me" and "show it to me" ', it is worth noting that "show me" is a common-usage abbreviation for the longer "show it to me". With this in mind, when you want to express a thought, in written form, be literal. Expand your wording to include everything you think is necessary to convey your point. Let's go back to the "Show me" example. Some languages will assume the "to". English does not. Therefore, one can not go wrong by using the extra word, "to".

Corvus B

Posted 2016-02-16T16:56:40.553

Reputation: 297