Which sentence is correct?

  • What are you talking about? I don't understand you.
  • What are you talking about? I'm not understanding you.

That was a question we've had in an exam and it was:

One of the underlined words is wrong. Choose either A, B, C or D.

What (are:A) you talking (about:B)? (I'm:C) not (understand:D) you.

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  • 1
    @rhetorician ell has been born and is a toddler no longer in the area51 womb. – Kris Jan 26 '14 at 13:12
  • 3
    (E) none of the above. The correct sentence would be "What are you talking about? I don't understand you" – Gus Jan 30 '14 at 22:44
  • 1
    @Gus What's wrong with "What are you talking about? I'm not understanding you." – emsoff Jan 30 '14 at 22:47
  • 2
    "I'm not understanding you." seems like Indian English. – Tristan r Jan 30 '14 at 22:54
  • 1
    D is wrong and "I'm not understanding you." sounds perfectly OK in my English-speaking part of the world (US Midwest). – Kristina Lopez Jan 30 '14 at 23:14

Understand is a stative verb along with like, remember, think, want, etc. that is not normally used in the progressive form. This is why "I'm not understanding" is much less common than "I don't understand". However, as Huddleston in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p170) states:

None of these (stative) verbs completely excludes the progressive. … The progressive adds an element of tentativeness. … It is not so clear how the politeness derives from the progressive. One factor is no doubt length/complexity: polite formulations are often more complex than ordinary ones.

The use of the progressive in the case of "I'm not understanding you" may also be interpreted here as implying that the failure to understand is a temporary state for which I, not you, bear the responsibility.

There is an extensive analysis of the various functions of the progressive (including tentativeness, politeness, deference, etc.) in Levin: The progressive verb in modern American English. Here is one extract:

… the progressive is used as a device that reduces imposition on the addressee.


meta: This may not be an answer.

One source says:

There are a number of verbs that can not be used in the Present Continuous. Th(ese are the) so-called stative verbs – verbs of state. (The) Present Continuous can only describe (an) action process that can start, pause or end.
(stative verbs:) know, believe, understand, recognize, realize, suppose, deny, imagine … [emphasis mine]

However, I think understand is a verb that can be used in a 'continuous' (dynamic) sense as well as a 'stative' sense. They mean different things and each may be suitable according to context.

Grammar Logs seems to think either is fine: I don't think there's anything particularly incorrect about "not understanding"; it's just silly.

  • 1
    Reading the source quotation, it might be that I am not understanding you is actually a predicative adjective sentence rather than a present progressive with not understanding you functioning as an adjectival modification of I. – virmaior Jan 26 '14 at 13:54
  • 1
    @virmaior +1 Technically, yes. However, the semantics have some problems. – Kris Jan 26 '14 at 13:57

C is definitely wrong. As you said,"understand" is a stative verb that should not be used in a progressive sense (though often is conversationally).

  • You can replace D with "following". How would you fix the sentence by replacing C? – Peter Shor Jan 31 '14 at 3:16
  • @PeterShor "I'm" -> "I do" – Mitch Jan 31 '14 at 4:01
  • In a similar vein, you could "fix" the sentence by replacing C with "This grammatical error in your phrasing confused me: " – Backgammon Jan 31 '14 at 6:49

I don't think I will be able to provide a source to substantiate this answer, but the two sentences have the same essential meaning but differ in tone.

Grammatically, I don't understand you is the negative simple present tense indicative. I'm not understanding you is the negative present progressive indicative. Progressive tenses can have multiple meanings, but in this case, they have the same meaning.

The difference, at least as I see it, is where the two forms place the failure of understanding. I don't understand places the failure on your side -- failure to provide something I could understand. I'm not understanding places the failure in understanding on my side, implying I must lack something necessary for understanding. implies that I am experiencing a type of cognitive failure that prevents understanding. In other words, the present progressive identifies an I-state *I am ... * whereas I don't understand is merely a negation of the state of understanding...

  • 1
    Oh, wait! I'm not understanding you. – Kris Jan 26 '14 at 13:54
  • @Kris tried to rewrite the unclear part... – virmaior Jan 26 '14 at 14:07
  • 1
    Relax, that comment was just a pun! – Kris Jan 27 '14 at 6:49

C is wrong since it's not a word. It's two!

  • Thanks, but this only half-answers the question. You've identified one of the three answers that is wrong without explaining what the correct one would be and why. – choster Jan 31 '14 at 16:34
  • @choster: Yeah, sorry. It was just a lame joke, but I couldn't resist. I suppose I like to joke about these type of multiple questions since they in my experience usually are open to interpretation, usually unbeknownst to the writer of the question. I lost many point in school this way, and apparently it made me resentful to this day :) – Alexander Torstling Feb 1 '14 at 22:01

To an English speaker's ear "I don't understand you." is correct, while "I'm not understanding you." is not.

It feels like the second form changes tense in the second sentence, but this non-expert cannot identify why!

Either form should be understood though.

  • 2
    Which English speaker do you mean? – Kris Jan 26 '14 at 13:13
  • 2
    “I'm not understanding you” is perfectly correct. This answer is just plain wrong. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 26 '14 at 13:54

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