In my native language, the word corresponding to the English verb motivate can be used to mean something like 'explain' or 'justify'. We could for instance ask someone to 'motivate' a particular point of view, a particular choice, a particular answer etc. When I check the various dictionaries I have access to it seems that motivate cannot be used in this sense in English, but when I google BrE web pages for "motivate your answer", I nevertheless get a number of hits that seem to support this use also in English – for instance:

Use the specific data given above to motivate your answer

If you wish, please motivate your answer (max. 1000 characters)

Describe the objective data you would collect from patient T and motivate your answer.

So, is it, after all, possible to use motivate in this sense in English, or are the above examples just bad English? If it is possible, would it also be possible to use a modified participle of this verb as a premodifier in a NP, as in well-motivated choices and well-motivated answers? If not, what could I use instead?

Thank you!

  • 2
    South Africa English: ​motivate something (South African English, formal) to give reasons for something that you have stated Please motivate your answer to question 5. Oxford Learners Dictionary.....
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 14:51
  • 2
    This is very interesting - this meaning of motivate is completely unknown in US English (as far as I am aware) but it seems like it has currency in other dialects.
    – stangdon
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 15:19

2 Answers 2


It certainly is used in the UK by some people in that sense. I think it is a relatively recent arrival in our linguistic landscape though so perhaps it is a borrowing from other dialects or even a direct translation from another language like Spanish motivar for instance. That might explain it poor showing in dictionaries.

  • Thank you! It's particularly interesting that it's gaining ground in the UK but not in the US though, if it's a Spanish borrowing, seeing that AmE would probably be more susceptible to Spanish influence than BrE.
    – Helen
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 15:49
  • 1
    @Helen it may come from somewhere else but I happen to know that word in Spanish.
    – mdewey
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 16:15
  • 1
    My Spanish is not great, but it's also possible that this sense of motivar is more of a castellano, i.e. "Spain Spanish" usage, which might explain it: the Real Academia Española dictionary includes the definition and example "Dar o explicar la razón o motivo que se ha tenido para hacer algo. Debes motivar la respuesta."; while the Diccionario del español de México definition doesn't; US English is more influenced by Latin American Spanish than Spain Spanish.
    – stangdon
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 16:22
  • @stangdon Interesting! Yes, that would explain it :)
    – Helen
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 16:27

I am afraid to say that it would be bad English.

Motivate does not mean explain or justify. It is that simple.

  • Thank you – that's what I thought as well, but Lambie's comment to my question, and mdewey's answer seem to support its use in (at least) South African English and BrE. Interesting indeed. I take it you (Patriot) are from the States?
    – Helen
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 19:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .