Explain Like I'm Five
Vann Vicente

Is there a topic you don’t understand and would like explained in the simplest way? You might want to use the acronym ELI5. Here’s what it means, and how to use it to get a helpful explanation.

“Explain Like I’m 5”

ELI5 stands for “explain like I’m 5.” When people use it online, they’re asking others to explain a complex or obscure topic in the simplest of terms. So, if taken literally, they would explain something in a way that a 5-year-old would understand.

However, this acronym is rarely used literally. ELI5 means breaking down a topic into reader-friendly layman’s terms.

Some popular ELI5 topics might include science, technology, law, and economics. Questions about astrophysics or global affairs might not have any easy answers readily available online. So, an answer in response to “ELI5” might be the best way for the average person to grasp a concept.

The standard format is to just type the acronym followed by the question you want to ask: “ELI5: Why does a day last longer on other planets?” Then, scientists or enthusiasts can respond in the comments.

The History of ELI5

Unlike many internet acronyms, the origin of ELI5 is much more recent. It was first used online on Twitter in the early 2010s. However, it’s possible it was in use before that.

In 2011, the subreddit r/ExplainLikeImFive was created, and ELI5 became one of the most common acronyms used in educational circles on the internet. Since then, the subreddit has grown substantially, and ELI5 is now widely used all over the web.

The ELI5 Subreddit

As we mentioned above, the main platform on which you can ask questions formatted this way is the ELI5 subreddit. With nearly 20 million subscribers, it’s one of the most popular communities on the entire platform.

The subreddit asks people to add a flair to posts based on their category, such as biology, physics, or economics. All the posts on the subreddit follow the ELI5 format, and thousands of people come to the community daily to answer questions. It’s become one of the largest repositories of simplified information on complex topics on the internet.

Some of the most popular questions ever posted include:

  • “If there is no cellphone signal, how does the ‘emergency calls only’ mode work?”
  • “How does your body burn 2,000 calories a day, but you have to run a mile to burn 100 extra?”

Reddit has acknowledged ELI5 as one of the most important communities on its website. In 2013, the company even named its first original video series after the subreddit. The videos take a comedic approach to the subreddits’ premise and explain things like the Syrian crisis and philosophy to actual 5-year-olds.

However, if you’re really trying to understand an obscure, objective topic, there are better places on the web to get info than the ELI5 community.

ELI5 Outside Reddit

A teacher teaching a young student in front of a laptop.
Asia Images Group/Shutterstock.com

ELI5 is alive and well on other platforms besides Reddit. You’ll often see it on other social media websites, like Facebook and Twitter. It’s fairly common for someone to use ELI5 when asking their followers or friends to explain something. As platforms like Twitter also have a character limit, these explanations have to be abbreviated even further than they are on Reddit.

Many podcasts and YouTube channels have also adopted the ELI5 format and feature experts who break down complex topics for the audience. Some have based their entire show on the format, while others use it in one-off episodes.

A very popular show that adopts a similar format is WIRED’s 5 Levels, which features experts explaining topics at five levels of difficulty.

How to Use ELI5

When you use ELI5, it also implies that you might be too scared to ask the same question in a typical setting.

For example, one of the most upvoted posts on the subreddit is “Why does ‘Hoo’ produce cold air but ‘Haa’ produces hot air?” While this might seem like an unusual question to ask, it’s something many people have likely wondered about.

Using ELI5 is easy. Just type the acronym followed by your question or the topic you want more info on, like the examples below:

  • “ELI5: Why are the polar ice caps melting?”
  • “ELI5: Government budget deficits.”
  • “ELI5: Why do bones make a sound when you crack them?”
  • “ELI5: Fast charging.”

After you get your answers, you can post what you learned using another internet acronym: TIL.

RELATED: What Does "TIL" Mean, and How Do You Use It?

Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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