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Is there a difference in the meaning or the usage of the verbs understand and comprehend? Which one would fit best in the following sentence?

In order to speak and understand/comprehend a language, there has to be a representation of the words.

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closed as general reference by Robusto, JSBձոգչ, Matt E. Эллен, Mr. Shiny and New 安宇, FumbleFingers Mar 26 '12 at 14:19

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This may be answered by a comparison of the two words in a good dictionary. Voting to close as general reference. –  Robusto Mar 26 '12 at 11:35
@Robusto: a dictionary won't tell you relative rarity or register. –  Mitch Mar 26 '12 at 12:30
Why are many interesting questions closed? This question at least addresses 1) Usage, word choice, and grammar and 2) Etymology (history of words’ development), beyond anything a dictionary can provide. I like questions to improve my comprehension and understanding of English, not just correct grammar mistakes or wrong term usage. –  Vladtn Mar 26 '12 at 15:27
@Vladtn: Well, ask yourself this: "Why did I choose comprehension instead of understanding in my third sentence?" –  Robusto Mar 26 '12 at 16:47

3 Answers 3

Comprehend (through its Latin etymology, from comprehendere, cum: with + prehendere: grab) also has a spatial connotation, like encompass, by which one's thought surrounds a particular topic, like the hand an object, seeing all aspects and limits of a concept, but indeed, without maybe peeking inside like with true understanding.

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They are mostly synonymous but 'understand' is much more everyday than 'comprehend'.

Also, in addition to the connotation of 'inclusion', 'comprehend' is more intense.

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The words are synonymous but have slight difference between them. Understanding has a connotation of a deeper, fuller realization of a matter while comprehension is less deep and less full.

For an example, assume a person spoke elemental Spanish. If this person read a bit of poetry, he might comprehend the words but could easily not understand the meaning.

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Hm ... Interesting, in OALD it is explained the other way round, unstanding: to know or realize the meaning of words or to know or realize how or why something happens, but comprehend: to understand something fully, while comprehend is often used in negative sentences. –  Em1 Mar 26 '12 at 12:12

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