The difference between explain and describe

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The difference between explain and describe

Imagine a crime scene investigation.  There is evidence to note and all kinds of possible solutions to formulate.  The crime scene investigator is ready to examine the scene of the crime.  Will he need to explain the scene to describe it clearly or should he describe what has happened to explain the details.  That sounds confusing at first because the words explain and describe sound so similar but are they?  When you have a clear understanding of the difference between these two words you are able to look at the scene, assess the evidence and describe or explain the evidence clearly.

Finding out about the word…..  EXPLAIN:

  • Dictionary meaning:

Make something clear, understandable, easy to examine.  To analyse carefully and present the pros and cons, to make known in detail. This is the basic meaning of the word explain but it can have subtle differences when written in context.

Try looking at examples with sentences, to make each point, as that helps with understanding the word more clearly and the subtle differences of word usage.

  1. Make clear, understandable. To explain an obscure point.

The encyclopaedia was able to explain in detail how photosynthesis worked and the students were able to understand the concept.

  1. Make known in detail. To explain how to do something.

The car manual will explain exactly how to change a flat tyre.

  1. Assign a meaning to something – interpret. How to explain a silly remark.

“Has the cat got your tongue?” said Sally to the quiet boy and her friend tried to explain the silly remark in a kind way.

  1. Make the reason for something clear. I cannot explain his strange behaviour.

The dog was running around in circles and no one could explain its strange behaviour.

  • Parts of speech:

Explain is a verb – Teachers explain the school rules to their pupils every year.

There are different tenses to use –

Explain (present) explaining (continuous present)

Explained (past) was explaining (continuous past)

Will explain (future) will be explaining (continuous future)

(Just to name a few most commonly used)

Explain can also be an adjective – explainable or a noun – the explainer.

  • Synonyms:

Expound, interpret, define, describe, solve.

  • Antonyms:

Conceal, confuse, cloud, mystify, perplex, complicate.

  • Word origin:

The Latin origin of the word is interesting.

Esplanare – to flatten and planus level.

The word makes one think of a way of levelling out the understanding of a situation so it is understood plainly.  It tells how to understand something through the words used to make something understood.

The explanation.

The difference between explain and describe-1

Finding out about the word…….DESCRIBE:

  • Dictionary meaning:

To explain in words the appearance of something or the nature of an item or their attributes.  Give the details of an event.

Looking at examples with sentences to make each point helps with understanding

  1. To tell, give an account of. He describes the accident very carefully.

The policeman stands back from the accident and describes what he sees accurately as he writes the details of the incident in his notebook.

  1. To define or give a designated term. Few people may be described as a genius.

Albert Einstein can be described as one of the greatest genius of our time.

  1. Speak of a sign of something abstract.

 Conceit may be described as a state of emotional insecurity.

Mary watched her friend bite her nails and she knew that her bad habit could be described as nervousness and insecurity.

  1. Represent a picture or figure by drawing to complete the description.

The geometry paper had a difficult question that asked for an outline to describe an arc.

Other parts of speech:

Describable adjective, indescribably adverb, describer noun.

Different tenses to use:

Describe (present), describing (continuous present)

Described (past) was describing (continuous past)

Will describe (future), will be describing (continuous future)

Just a few of the tenses used for the word describe.

  • Synonyms:

Define, illustrate, depict, outline, and communicate.

  • Antonyms:

Conceal, confuse, cloud, mystify, hide, ignore, obscure.

  • Word origin:

Describe has its origin in the Latin word scriber meaning to write.

When you write about a topic you can describe the elements of that topic and create a picture in someone’s mind.

The description.

Now back to the crime scene:

If we were crime scene investigators would we describe the scene or explain what happened.  Perhaps it is all about the questioning techniques.

If you want answers to ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions then you are looking for an explanation.  How did something happen or why did something take place.  In both these situations there is a form of explanation to respond to the question.

For example: (back to our crime scene)

If the investigator asks – How did the murder weapon get into the dustbin?  Then an explanation is required.  Or – Why did the murderer hide the body under the bed? That also requires an explanation.

If you are looking for answers to ‘what’ or ‘where’ questions, then you are looking for a description of the event.  The more graphical it is the better the outcome.

For example: (back to the crime scene)

If the investigator asks – What did you think happened during the time of the murder?  Then a detailed description would give a good answer.  Or – When was the murderer planning to hide himself.

Explaining something is more of an analysis.  You elaborate on something so it is understood. It justifies how something works.

Describing is more visual, a sensory experience.  You can describe paintings, scenery and help people to visualise things around them.

When someone is asked to explain themselves then a more factual description of who you are and what you do for instance would probably be the correct format to answer.

When someone is asked to describe themselves then the response is probably more of a visual response answering the question with jow a person looks.

Albert Einstein said:

‘If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.’  A simple explanation is always the most sought after.

A good description on the other hand needs a bit more depth.

John Keats said about himself and Lord Byron:

‘You speak of Lord Byron and me; there is a great difference between us.  He describes what he sees.  I describe what I imagine.  Mine is the hardest task.’

In conclusion what the difference is between explain and describe.

Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, created by Arthur Conan Doyle used science and criminology to solve his murder and mysteries.  He explained how evidence led to his accurate conclusion.  And when the perpetrator was finally discovered and captured the physical description was uncanny. Therefore evidence, the facts were explained and the perpetrator the visual evidence was described.

Two words working together to come to the same conclusion but from different perspectives. Both words show how to reach the same conclusion but from different angles and lines of questioning.

Author: Christina Wither

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