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I have read that "understand" is a stative verb and means something like "to know well." However, lately I have had some doubts on whether that is always the case. For example, in the following sentence

"I can't understand what he's saying"

I'm not sure whether "understand" conveys an action or describes a state. If it was being a stative verb in that case, then substituting something like "know" should be possible. However, "I can't know what he's saying" sounds very wrong. In addition, dictionary definitions of "understand" often describe as "perceive; grasp the meaning of" which conflicts with its definition as a stative verb. Also, "comprehend" is often defined as "understand" even though I am fairly sure that is generally a dynamic verb.

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  • There are 125 000+ Google hits for "suddenly understood". – Edwin Ashworth May 18 '15 at 22:11
  • But "suddenly knew" is also valid, and "know" is a stative verb. – Joe May 18 '15 at 22:25
  • 'Suddenly, he knew' shows a punctive transition. ['Punctive verbs describe events which are (nearly) instantaneous'][Paczynski & Kuperberg_Aspect]. Obviously the knowing (knowledge) then persists, but the transformation is not stative. 'Know' is not just 'a stative verb'; it has senses meaning 'realise' and 'copulate'. – Edwin Ashworth May 18 '15 at 22:39
  • Here is a list of supposedly stative verbs. Suddenly seems to work with any of them. – WS2 May 18 '15 at 22:42
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    How does the following sentence sound? He told me to understand calculus, and eventually I did so. Be sure to keep the so; that's a test for active/stative. Note *He told me to own the house, and eventually I did so. Own is stative (rent is active, an interesting pair). So if the sentence sounds equally bad, it's stative; if it's OK, it's active. A famous paper by Ross and Lakoff was entitled "A criterion for verb phrase constituency; or, Why you can't do so into the sink". – John Lawler May 18 '15 at 23:15
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I think you might be relying on gut instinct too much.

You can't know everything, let alone what he's saying.

In English, unlike languages that have methods of indicating and dealing with stative and dynamic verbs, there is little need for distinction. To complicate things further, English can approximate the "inchoative aspect", which indicates a transition into a state of existence.

All at once, she understood what her mother had always been saying.

The inchoative often has helping words like "suddenly" to indicate the transition into the state. This would explain sentences like:

I can't begin to understand what he's saying about the inchoative aspect.

or more simply:

I can't understand what he's saying.

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  • Well, assuming "I can't know what he's saying" is a valid sentence, then the question becomes whether or not "I can't understand what he's saying" means that or is closer in meaning to "I can't comprehend what he's saying." One of the thing that puzzles me is how dictionaries define "understand" and how it conflicts with how it is a stative verb. – Joe May 18 '15 at 22:56
  • It still acts as a stative verb. Just because the words to indicate a transition in state aren't there (the "suddenly") doesn't mean that is is how the word is working. When someone says "I can't understand", they are indicating that they are not able to change state. Your issue may be more with the word "can" than "understand". Try experimenting with some other auxiliary verbs and you can see the state-based behavior. – Cord May 19 '15 at 1:17
  • I can accept that, but one last issue is how most dictionaries define "comprehend" as "to understand" if they work differently and also how their definition for "understand" as "perceive" contrasts with how it's a stative verb. In fact, many dictionaries make it a point to distinguish between the "to grasp the meaning" and "to know" definition. Also, sentences like "I'm not understanding what you're saying" are fairly common. – Joe May 19 '15 at 2:10
  • Perceive is also a stative verb. I'm not sure I understand that question. I agree that the use of the word "grasp" confuses the stative nature of the word; however, I would argue that the phrase "grasp the meaning" is itself a stative construction despite the use of a normally dynamic verb. This would just be a factor of English's propensity for adopting new meanings for words. – Cord May 20 '15 at 19:50

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