FuzzyLaw Mini-article

12 Oct 2012

In their own words

When we ask someone to “explain in your own words”, we ask them to present their thoughts by performing complex tasks of self-investigation and articulation.

Any explanation we receive does not demonstrate ‘understanding’ because it is influenced by factors such as the speaker or writer’s ability to explain, their previous experience of explanation, the context in which explanation is sought and the mode and medium of explanation as well as very personal feelings. Even such details as the time available at the moment we ask for explanation can be an influence.

So, asking someone to “explain in your own words” is not a perfect way to find out what they think something means. However, to get a broad-brush sense of what people have to say about word meanings, “explain in your own words” is one useful tool. The explanations gathered for FuzzyLaw were collected from members of the public via the Internet. The explainers were urged not to look anything up in books, nor online and were encouraged to work alone in constructing explanations. Each member of the public was presented with four terms to explain. They were instructed to: “Imagine that a good friend or close relative has found themselves on the wrong side of the law and is asking you for help but they need an answer right away – what would you say to explain as fully as you can”.


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