explain away

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  • Le Pamplemousse

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Silvia,

    "Explain away" is never used in that way.

    "so you can explain it in better words" would be correct.

    "Explain away" is only used by itself as an imperative, and even then it sounds a bit strange.

    I hope this helps.
     

    Silvia

    Senior Member
    Italian
    Le Pamplemousse said:
    "Explain away" is only used by itself as an imperative
    Thank you, Le Pamplemousse, I'm trying to understand what it conveys. Why and when would you use that imperative?
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Le Pamplemousse said:
    "Explain away" is never used in that way.
    "so you can explain it in better words" would be correct.
    Really?

    To explain something away means to rationalize your way out of something you've said or done, when problematic evidence is placed before you.

    You maintain that the world was created in 4572 BC. I show you fossils, give you material about carbon dating, set a stack of scientific research in front of you-- and I say, "explain that away."

    You're joking with a bunch of your friends about what an ugly troll Judith is. Then you notice her best friend is sitting in the next booth, regarding you as she might an inchworm. You stammer and temporize, you parse the meaning of "ugly troll" and, as an afterthought say-- oh! You thought I meant that Judith! I meant the one in the Caravaggio painting, cutting off Holofernes's head with a dull sword! You have trouble talking around that foot you stuck in your mouth, though, you've insulted your friend, and your lame attempts to explain it away are getting you nowhere.

    Clinton had his story down perfectly, and had all sorts of corroboration-- but he couldn't explain away that incriminating spot on the dress.

    In idiomatic English we also say to waffle, to backpedal, to grasp at straws, and to try and weasel your way out of something you've said.
    .
     

    Le Pamplemousse

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    A conversation might go like this:

    A: Can I explain this to you?
    B: Explain away.

    It's almost like giving someone permission to explain. You wouldn't use it unless someone asked you if they could explain something. Even then, it's pretty uncommon. The generic "Go ahead" is more common in a situation like that.

    "Away" is used with some other verbs in the same manner. Some of the more common ones are:

    "Fire away" = Go ahead and ask me a question (also "Ask away")

    Actually, that's the only one that comes to mind as a commonly used phrase. Keep in mind that it only works with a few verbs and may have a different meaning with some others (e.g. Go away).

    Of course, none of this has to do with your original quote.
     

    Le Pamplemousse

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Foxfirebrand,

    I've never heard it used in that way, and I consider myself pretty versed in the English language. Maybe it's from a different time and/or area than I am.
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    Silvia said:
    Hi all,

    I would like to know what the following means:

    so you can explain it away in better words

    I wouldn't like to misinterpret the sentence, but I need to know the difference between "explain" and "explain away".

    Thanks.

    to explain away = conceal or make light of a fault or offence.

    Lewis was receiving up to $10,000 a month in bribes — money he tried to explain away by saying he won it on the horses.

     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    ... so you can explain it away in better words ...

    A has made a statement that includes a serous grammatical error.
    B points out the error.
    A tries to justify the usage - which B believes is unjustifiable - by some eccentric and bizarre reference.
    B says "There is no point in your trying to explain it away, you were wrong."

    In this sentence, "it" refers to A's colossal faux pas.

    Explain it away suggests someone is trying to use logical explanation to cover over something, or to justify the unjustifiable

    Edit: Overlap with Brioche - but we agree, so that's OK:)
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Le Pamplemousse said:
    Foxfirebrand,

    I've never heard it used in that way, and I consider myself pretty versed in the English language. Maybe it's from a different time and/or area than I am.
    Pretty versed? But not a native speaker, right? Just a guess on my part-- based on your not knowing idiom that's in very widespread use.

    I don't like to use Google much, but "explain away" gets 825,000 hits, and a brief skim of the first couple pages turns up two dictionary entries that nail the usage pretty good:

    http://www.bartleby.com/62/87/E0568700.html
    http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/explain+away

    I don't see anything in the "bombs away" category-- you're right that we don't say "explain away" in that sense very often, but if the context led you to, you'd certainly be understood by any native AE speaker.

    It's certainly not an insult to hypothesize someone is not a native speaker-- I wouldn't bring it up at all, even though you're in error about "explain away." But you're defining things, at least in your first post, with a categorical air of authority that might mislead newcomers to the site. It would be a service to these people-- could you be more specific about the nature of your proficiency? If my impression that English isn't your native language is wrong, of course that needs to be set right.
    .
     

    E-J

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Just sticking my oar in here to confirm that "explain [something] away" in the context described by foxfirebrand (US), panjandrum (Ireland) and Brioche (Australia) is also perfectly acceptable usage where I come from (England). Seems like it's a pretty universal expression!
     

    Silvia

    Senior Member
    Italian
    panjandrum said:
    Explain it away suggests someone is trying to use logical explanation to cover over something, or to justify the unjustifiable
    Got it. Thank you panjandrum, brioche and everyone else who answered my question. Now it is clear. It's an invitation to justify the unjustifiable, to conceal or make light of a fault or offense. I don't feel like wasting my time on this any longer.
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Silvia said:
    Got it. Thank you panjandrum, brioche and everyone else who answered my question. Now it is clear. It's an invitation to justify the unjustifiable, to conceal or make light of a fault or offense. I don't feel like wasting my time on this any longer.
    ????????

    It's a waste of time to learn something? That throws a lot of light on this whole interminable discussion about denigrating people who don't consider (the Italian equivalent of) the Queen's English a superior language to their own. I thought when it crept into this more civil environment that we were dealing with an simple issue of English-language usage. Anyone with a conceivable interest in the murky subtext of all this can PM me.

    I hope all those bold question marks don't compromise my emoticon virginity. Never have I been more tempted-- as usual, I doubt there exists one with just the right facial expression. Those ones that spout copious tears come close, but it's the wrong fluid.
    .
     

    Amityville

    Senior Member
    English UK
    For those of us still around and interested, Silvia's original quote

    Silvia said:

    might have misled Pamplemousse because of the 'in better words'
    'explain away' - has a feeling of waffling on etc exactly as you said ffb, with nice examples (much appreciated)
    'in better words' can mean WITHOUT waffling on.
    There is a bit of a conflict there isn't there or is it me that's counting the syllables in chocolate now ?
    In fact I believe that it is possible to temporize more articulately, or explain away in better words but at first it sounds like a contradiction.
    My two cents.
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Amityville said:
    In fact I believe that it is possible to temporize more articulately, or explain away in better words but at first it sounds like a contradiction.
    Sylvia linked to the original context. I thought "sound ridiculous" was clear in meaning, and a derogatory thing to say about people of a certain dialect. It was suggested that if I "didn't understand" what was meant by that, I could have asked rather than trusting my interpretation-- in which case "We could have tried to explain in better words."

    I said I have to ask what is meant by the notion that people who speak Neapolitan "sound ridiculous?" Yeah, so you can explain it away in better words. [emphasis not added]
    .
     

    Amityville

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Ah, ok, I didn't know the hidden agenda - it somehow looked more just underlined than clickable so I didn't click, my fault. (Maybe Pamplemousse didn't click either)
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Hey - I didn't click either.
    It looked underlined to me as well.
    Never thought it was a link.
    Sorry.
    In the interests of avoiding this spilling over into an ongoing conversation, I am going to close the thread.
    Objectors could try PMing me in protest....
    It seems to me that we have managed in a kind of innocent and naive way to explain explain away.
    That meets the objectives of this forum admirably.

    <Panjandrum.
    ... donning momentarily a moderatorial hat....>
     
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