Allow me to ‘explain you’ something: The inevitability of modern syntactic change

**This post also appeared on The Speculative Blog on Quora**

When it comes to English, I have two minds. My prescriptive mind says there are certain, immutable rules in the language that should never be broken. Conversely, my descriptive mind says, “Hey, chill out. Language changes all the time, and you should not only deal with it, you should embrace it!” These two minds are in constant conflict, especially in my classroom. On one hand, it’s my job to teach students how to speak and write “properly,” and yet, I know that what is “proper” English now may be archaic and non-standard in the (very near) future.

This brings me to a recent observation: there is a syntactic change taking place in English with the phrase ‘explain you’ and its variants. My students use this modern, slang-style brocabulary in conversations, saying things like, “I will explain you it.” Native (read: old) speakers will note the cognitive dissonance of that sentence. It should be, “I will explain it to you,” but the syntax is inverted. Weird, right?

Maybe not…

As a lexophile and descriptive linguist, I asked myself what was going on and why I was just now noticing it, so I dug a little deeper and came to a realization: ‘explain you’ might actually make sense according to the shifting syntactic rules of English, and – gasp! – I think it’ll be standard use within the next 100 years or so.

Let me explain you my reasoning.

Everything here hinges on something called transitivity. Transitivity is how verbs transfer their actions onto direct and indirect objects. For example, in the sentence, “The wombat punched a Nazi,” the verb ‘punched’ is transitive because it transfers its action onto an object (‘a Nazi’). In contrast, in the sentence, “The screaming infant finally slept,” the verb ‘slept’ is intransitive because it does not transfer its action to an object (you can’t ‘sleep’ something or ‘slept’ something). ‘Explain’ is transitive because we can explain stuff: “I explained the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ to my pet wombat.” In the sentence, the direct object of the transitive verb ‘explained’ is ‘difference’ – that’s the thing I explained. Get it? Cool.

To get more complicated, transitive verbs can also be classified as being mono-transitive or ditransitive depending on whether or not they take only a direct object (mono-) or both a direct and an indirect object (di-). For example, in the sentence,”I bought an emu,” ‘bought’ is mono-transitive because it only takes a direct object (’emu’). In the sentence, “I bought Mary an emu,” the verb ‘bought’ becomes ditransitive because it takes a direct object (’emu’) and an indirect object (‘Mary’).

How is this relevant to the verb ‘explain’? Well, ‘explain’ can only be mono-transitive in English. It cannot take an indirect object according to current prescriptive rules. Any time you want to use an “indirect object” with the verb ‘explain,’ you have to put it into a prepositional phrase instead. Look at these three sentences:

  • I explained the situation.
  • I explained the situation to Paul.
  • I explained Paul the situation.

The first two are just fine. The third one doesn’t work. But why? Most English speakers will claim that it “just sounds wrong.” Ok, fine. But think about these sentences:

  • I taught the material.
  • I taught the material to Paul.
  • I taught Paul the material.

All of these work. Another set:

  • I brought the cookies.
  • I brought the cookies to Paul.
  • I brought Paul the cookies.

Again, we see that the verb can be ditransitive.

So why not ‘explain’? Well, ‘explain’ isn’t the only English verb that has this characteristic. There are a bunch of mono-transitive verbs that can’t take indirect objects: ‘describe,’ ‘create,’ ‘evaluate,’ ‘smell,’ and dozens more are only used in mono-transitive contexts. This makes sense for a word like ‘smell.’ You can say “I smell flowers,” but there’s never a reason to say something like “I smell flowers to you,” so a ditransitive structure for ‘smell’ is nonsensical.

But ditransitivity might make sense in some cases where we have prohibited it. Think about the verb ‘describe.’

  • I describe the picture.
  • I describe the picture to Bill.
  • I describe Bill the picture.

Again, the final sentence makes us cringe; however, taking an indirect object makes sense in terms of the semantics of the sentence when taken as a whole, just not the syntax.

Why?

The issue may be etymological, but my belief is that our brains parse certain verbs differently from others. When we read “I describe Bill the picture,” our brains pause at ‘Bill’ and begin to define the context of the sentence immediately, without accounting for rest of the sentence. We imagine describing Bill rather than describing the picture.

Our brains don’t have this problem with ditransitive verbs like ‘teach.’ “I teach Paul,” and “I teach Paul the dance” parse the same way in our minds because teaching Paul and teaching Paul a dance are semantically similar. Describing Bill and describing a picture to Bill are vastly different semantic concepts, so we can’t use ‘Bill’ as an indirect object.

‘Explain’ is a little different though. For me, ‘explain you’ is straddling semantic ambiguity. Saying, “I will explain Bill” could parse and make sense in a sort of “existential” way, like I will explain Bill as a person or I will explain Bill’s mental state; however, this use is rare and would require additional context to be fully understood anyway. This is what separates a stricter mono-transitive verb like ‘describe’ from ‘explain.’ “I describe Bill” immediately parses in our minds. “I explain Bill” does not.

Sentence constructions “explaining” nouns and pronouns that could function as indirect objects are so rare, and cause such little ambiguity, that descriptive linguistics is allowing a syntactic adjustment to take place regarding ‘explain’ and its transitivity. As a result, the verb ‘explain’ is becoming ditransitive.

I did a quick search for the phrase “explain you” on Twitter and found 10 examples of this construction in the first 50 or so results (only going back a day or so):

explainfull

The shift seems to be especially prevalent among non-native English speakers, which makes sense considering many speakers of other languages don’t have an issue with the ‘explain you’ structure in their native tongue.

But here’s the fascinating thing: none of these examples is ambiguous. The meaning is clear based on context, and I’d argue that this construction is more concise than the prescriptive syntax, especially in longer phrases. Compare:

Will you explain the necessity of having to memorize so many frivolous grammar rules to me?

Will you explain me the necessity of having to memorize so many frivolous grammar rules?

I honestly think the second version is more direct and less ambiguous. Sure, some people would argue that I could say, “Will you explain to me the necessity…,” but even that is still more words than are necessary to convey the meaning without ambiguity.

As much as the prescriptive grammarian in me hates to admit it, I think this shift makes sense. Heck, in 50 years, maybe my grand kids will be explaining me the grammar rules they’re learning in school, and this’ll be one of them.

 

 

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