Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I don't think you understood me. / I think you misunderstood me.

Do these senteces mean the same thing? If not, what's the difference?

Edit: I just realized that I asked something different from what I originally wanted. So I am also interested in the following comparison:

I don't think you understand me. / I think you don't understand me.

share|improve this question
2  
I usually say, "I think I wasn't clear." Makes for less resistance on the second go-round. –  bib Jun 26 '13 at 18:23
    
@bib: True enough. People's defenses tend not to come into play when you "blame yourself" for a misunderstanding rather than them. The word "you" at the beginning of a sentence, like the pointing of a finger(!) can trigger an unpleasant confrontation, when all that is needed is a little diplomacy: "I'm sorry I wasn't clear. Let me rephrase that." –  rhetorician Jun 26 '13 at 19:36
    
Still, the exact phrase "I think I wasn't clear" somehow reminds me of a teacher being condescendant and might still cause some resistance in that regard. I'd use "Maybe I did not explain it well" which does not have that connotation. But then again: that might be just me :) –  Grimace of Despair Jun 27 '13 at 8:06

6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Think is one of the verbs that govern the rule called Negative Raising.

Nothing actually gets raised, though. What this means is that the verb think is transparent to negation, because it doesn't really mean anything except to identify what you're thinking about.

Consequently
- X think (not Y)
is equivalent to
- X not think (Y)

Other predicates that govern Neg-Raising include believe, feel, intend, expect, seem, and suppose. These are all verbs of mental state that take complements.

This is not true, however, with most verbs that take complements. Neg-Raising is a minor governed rule, with relatively few verbs that govern it.

  • I said he didn't like it. ≠ I didn't say he liked it.
  • She tried not to smile. ≠ She didn't try to smile.
share|improve this answer
    
thanks it seems good, however why I asked this question is I have read somewhere that it is not correct (Brittish English) to negate the second part of the sentence: I don't think you are nice / I think you aren't nice but, apparanently, it was something else :) –  gen Jun 26 '13 at 20:42
    
It depends on the verb. Most verbs don't govern neg-raising. However, in general, any grammar that doesn't give you a list of verbs that work this way as exceptions is not likely to produce any useful information. –  John Lawler Jun 26 '13 at 20:46
    
Isn't X's thinking ambiguous in the X not think (Y) case and not ambiguous in the X think (not Y) case? In the second case we know at least one thing that X definitely thinks (Y) but in the first case we don't know that X thinks, e.g. (not Y). –  Aaron Golden Jun 27 '13 at 0:14
    
You are right about think, but as Cyberherbalist pointed out, there is a difference between not understanding and misunderstanding. If only your answers could be combined! –  congusbongus Jun 27 '13 at 4:29
    
@AaronGolden: With appropriate stress and intonation, it's possible to force either an inside or an outside negation reading. It's simply ambiguous in writing, like most written sentences, but normally we don't notice. –  John Lawler Jun 27 '13 at 6:08

They are very close, and may be used to mean the same thing, but there is a semantic difference between not understanding and misunderstanding.

If my wife calls to me from the TV room and I can't understand what she says (i.e. I can't quite parse the meaning because the sound doesn't reach my ears intelligibly enough), then I have not understood. However, if I hear she wants me to bring her a fork, but she wanted some pork, then I have misunderstood.

share|improve this answer
    
As you say, a purist would point out the logical difference in meaning - but few men-in-the-street are purists, and would use the two sentences interchangeably. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 '13 at 20:28
3  
Gee, I think I said that. In slightly different words: "...may be used to mean the same thing..." –  Cyberherbalist Jun 26 '13 at 20:33
    
Strange - I didn't see any mention of purists (sticklers), or the fact that most people aren't such, in your answer. Which is why I added the comment. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 '13 at 16:55
    
Purists? Who brought up purists? What part of "...may be used to mean the same thing..." suggests to your mind any form of purism? I think you misunderstood what I said. –  Cyberherbalist Jun 27 '13 at 17:19
    
'May be used to use the same thing' implies that there are some people who would do so / do so. And on the other hand, you, at least, point out that 'there is a difference in meaning' thus illustrating that some people use the terms with more precision. I was merely offering the view that most people wouldn't analyse as accurately as you do. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 '13 at 22:26

To misunderstand means to interpret something incorrectly. If you don't understand something, on the other hand, you probably don't have an interpretation of it.

share|improve this answer

If I tell you something and you have no idea what I am speaking about, then you don't understand me. If I try to explain you something and you think you know what I am talking about, but finally I realize you don't really know, then you misunderstand me.

share|improve this answer

If you speak to me in Hungarian, I can truthfully say "I don't understand you" but not "I misunderstand you."

share|improve this answer
    
why did you choose Hungarian? –  gen Jun 27 '13 at 7:19
    
@gen It was mainly a random choice, but I wanted a language in which I understand essentially nothing at all. –  Andreas Blass Jun 27 '13 at 16:45
    
Ok, I thought my nationality is shared somewhere :) –  gen Jun 28 '13 at 7:12

Both sentences have multiple interpretations which largely overlap.

One key issue is that the verb to think can represent multiple degrees of conviction.

X thinks that Y could mean that X is quite convinced that Y is true, or it could mean that X only suspects that Y might be true.

"I don't think you understood me" could be used in a situation where the same speaker could say either "I suspect that you possibly might not have understood me" or "it quite obvious and therefore I strongly believe that you did not understand me".

Like wise, "I think you misunderstood me" supports multiple such interpretations.

Therefore, these sentences are not distinguishable in the speaker's degree of conviction.

However, there are additional factors at play here here. Firstly, not to understand is not the same thing as misunderstand.

Someone who misunderstands something is under the impression that he or she in fact understands: to misunderstand is to "understand wrongly". Just as "misappropriate" does not mean "not to appropriate" but to "appropriate wrongly", and "miscalculate" is not the same thing as "not to calculate" or "not to be able to calculate", but to "calculate wrongly". Other "mis-" words follow similar patterns.

Someone who does not understand could be misunderstanding (not knowing that he or she does not understand) or could be aware that he or she doesn't understand.

Thus, "I don't think you understood me" could mean "I have some degree of conviction in the suspicion that you did not understand me and that you know this is the case", or it could mean "I have some degree of conviction in the suspicion that you understood me incorrectly". The former could occur for example when speaking with a learner of English, and that person makes a puzzled face. The latter would occur when the learner of English appears to understand, but makes an inappropriate reply.

By contract, "I think you misunderstood me" has only the second of these two meanings.

Secondly, to understand has an additional shades of meaning; it can refer to emotional rapport between people. Emotionally, someone either understands you, or does not understand you. The word misunderstand does not usually take on this shade; it refers to some factual blunder.

Thus, "I don't think you understood me" could be a remark uttered by someone who is making a comment about, say, a past relationship. Such a remark would not likely be expressed using "I think you misunderstood me".

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.