Is there a word that means I understand what you're saying, but does not mean that I comprehend it?

For instance: "Given the big-O notation, we can calculate the approximate time the algorithm will take."

That is perfect English, and broken up word by word (Save "big-O"), it can be understood. However, the actual meaning of the sentence may not be.

So basically, is there a word that says I understand each word, while not doubling to mean I understand the idea?

Edit: I'm not looking to say I don't understand you, rather just one word that doesn't double to mean the other, and doesn't have a negative connotation. So expound, incomprehensible, and so on are not what I'm looking for.

J L V has put it the most elegant, "You're looking for a single word describing that while you both HEARD (audibility) and UNDERSTOOD (meaning) every single word in that sentence you still weren't able to get the 'big picture'."

  • 1
    I hear what you're saying, but I don't get it. – Jim Dec 3 '14 at 6:00
  • It doesn't make sense = it's nonsensical. You can nearly always understand every word (unless it's made-up on the spot) but the phrase might not make any sense. – Mari-Lou A Dec 3 '14 at 6:28
  • @Mari-LouA, that word doesn't make the distinction. An example from Dictionary.com: "A baby's babbling is appealingly nonsensical." – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:30
  • @David actually depending on the circumstances I'd say the baby is either happy and communicating its joy, or it is imitating the sounds it hears, and attempting to communicate. Sometimes babble is not nonsensical at all. It's just a different type of language, that we don't understand, and which babies grow out of. But I did say: if a word is not made-up on the spot. – Mari-Lou A Dec 3 '14 at 6:33
  • The answers so far are all over the map, demonstrating that the question is not sufficiently clear. What part of speech are you after? What is the context and the register? What words have you already considered but dismissed? Why do you think there is a single word? Why do you need a single word? The whole point of a language is to not have a single word for everything. (Cf. also word for disrespecting eldest half-sister by referring to her husband as girly-girl-manly-boy though he's amused but the rest of the family isn't.) – RegDwigнt Dec 3 '14 at 13:30

I don't believe we have a single word that fits the definition you've given.

I run into this quite often when studying languages, especially in languages that don't have subject/object markers. I'll know the root of each individual word, but depending on their placement in a given sentence, I won't understand the sentence.

I don't have an example handy, but it would be like not being able to tell the difference between "I am eating the bear" and "The bear is eating me".

  • You at least have the idea. Shame you don't have a word to fit with it though. :) – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:13
  • If the "I am eating the bear" example is representative of what you're looking for, @David, the example given in the question may be misleading because it is a confusing sentence even if one does understand the grammatical relationships between the words. – Semicolon Dec 3 '14 at 6:58
  • The example still fits. – David Dec 3 '14 at 7:01
  • 2
    IDIOMS!!! Near-perfect example!!! "It's raining cats and dogs." Individually, the words make sense, but together, they don't. We have a word for that: idiomatic. But 'idiomatic' denotes a set group of words with a set meaning. I still can't think of a word for the OP wants. – miltonaut Dec 3 '14 at 7:06
  • 1
    Very nice @miltonaut. This puzzle is bothering me though! The closest I can think of so far is "I couldn't parse that." – Semicolon Dec 3 '14 at 7:09

I think impenetrable might work. It doesn't say anything about the particular words used, but it does indicate that the meaning isn't coming through. The phrase impenetrable wall of prose is sometimes used to describe writing that's too much work to read. So in response to a seemingly sensible but incomprehensible statement, I might say "That was singularly impenetrable."

  • But it still doubles the meaning, as in jibberish is just as incomprehensible as my example. Also, not what I'm looking for, as my edit expounds upon. – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:08
  • @David: see my edit. – dnagirl Dec 3 '14 at 6:25
  • Hmm, interesting, but still the wrong side of the equation. And slightly questionable, as "What you just said was completely impenetrable" might or might not make sense, depending on the person. – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:28

The best I can think of is a prolonged "Okaaaaay...". That's certainly more informal.

The tenor and meter or delivery is distinct from a curt "Ok" which would convey an understanding of the meaning as well.

With out a follow up statement that you need more clarification though it may come across as sarcastic.

Another option might be "Elaborate"

If you're in a truly formal or academic setting I wouldn't seek a single word to convey what you want. Be clear and articulate what you do not understand.


Maybe a construction using the verbs "to perceive" or "to hear". I'd rather find a way to phrase differently though.

I perceived your question.

I heard you[r statement/question].

Both kinda expressing that whatever was said has been audible to you without making a statement about whether it's been understood or not.

  • Still vague though as to the distinction. Saying, "[Insert other language here]" with a rising intonation would fit both of your statements, but I wouldn't understand the words or the meaning. – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:10
  • 1
    So let me get this straight, you're looking for a single word describing that while you both HEARD (audibility) and UNDERSTOOD (meaning) every single word in that sentence you still weren't able to get the "big picture" kinda? – J_LV Dec 3 '14 at 6:27
  • Yeah, pretty much, if such a word even exists. – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:30
  • 1
    I'm honestly going to give up on this because I don't believe it does. And should you be able to find something, it's gonna be too abstract and not generic enough to use in a sentence IMO. That being said, I thought impenetrable was a very intelligent suggestion although I probably wouldn't feel comfortable using it either. – J_LV Dec 3 '14 at 6:42
  • Fair enough. I appreciate you taking the time to look around. – David Dec 3 '14 at 6:43

Unclear / not clear

Your statement is [unclear, not clear] , what does big-O mean?

It's [unclear, not clear] what you mean.

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