There's a specific word I'm looking for.

For example if there is some messy handwriting, and you're able to understand it what is says, you're able to [verb] it.


I got lost on the way here! I was unable to [verb] the last line of his instructions.

Sue has a speech impediment, but fortunately for her, her husband and colleagues were very good at [verbing] her speech when she was having a bad day.

  • 7
    I generally use "decipher". (My wife and I always had a grand time deciphering the handwriting of my 98-year-old aunt.)
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 8, 2015 at 2:05
  • You could say you can make out what it says. Not single word, though. Aug 8, 2015 at 4:00
  • 1
    Colloquially, I'd likely use grok here. Aug 8, 2015 at 9:02
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet The way I grok grok is understanding the essence of something with your being, so I'm not sure it's appropriate for something simple like reading directions. (Admittedly, I haven't read Stranger in a Strange Land in a long time.)
    – Kimball
    Aug 8, 2015 at 9:27
  • Perhaps you can comprehend their chicken scratch? Aug 8, 2015 at 20:47

14 Answers 14


decipher, or decode for writing; interpreting, inferring, or understanding for speech.

Succeed in understanding, interpreting, or identifying (something):
“Have you ever tried deciphering a doctor's prescription that looks like some sort of secret code out of World War II?”

  • All good answers, but not the word I'm sure exists.
    – dwjohnston
    Aug 8, 2015 at 0:52
  • 6
    +1 for decipher. But a complete answer gives definitions, links, examples.
    – Centaurus
    Aug 8, 2015 at 0:57
  • 1
    @dwjohnston: decipher / deciphering fits perfectly into your example sentences. Robert Mastragostino's parse answer also works, but I'd use decipher. Aug 8, 2015 at 5:32
  • 5
    If your question is "please remind me of the word I forgot", you're really just setting us on a merry chase, a guessing game. Aug 8, 2015 at 6:45
  • 3
    You would get more upvotes if you took the time to provide links and references. For native speakers these terms are well-known and understood, but for those who aren't, and there are many users who belong to that category, a definition with a short explanation why one term is more appropriate than another, would be extremely helpful and informative.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 8, 2015 at 8:06

I'm almost certain the word you're looking for is discern.


I got lost on the way here! I was unable to discern the last line of his instructions.

Sue has a speech impediment, but fortunately for her, her husband and colleagues were very good at discerning her speech when she was having a bad day.


To parse a phrase means specifically to understand or decipher a sentence, written or spoken. Strictly speaking the definition involves breaking a sentence down into grammatical parts, but I have heard it used more casually like this in practice.


Construe /kənˈstro͞o/ verb –Google

interpret (a word or action) in a particular way.

I got lost on the way here! I was unable to construe the last line of his instructions.

Sue has a speech impediment, but fortunately for her, her husband and colleagues were very good at construing her speech when she was having a bad day.

  • I don't think construe works. It doesn't mean decipher; the emphasis in the definition is on "in a particular way". For instance: "I got lost on the way here! Even though his instructions were perfectly legible, I construed them as an attempt to misdirect me."
    – Théophile
    Aug 9, 2015 at 2:07

Interpret /ɪnˈtɜr prɪt/ verb –dictionary.com

  1. to clarify or explain the meaning of; elucidate
  2. to construe the significance or intention of: to interpret a smile as an invitation
  3. to convey or represent the spirit or meaning of (a poem, song, etc) in performance

Though I would define it in this context as: to analyse and conclude meaning from an ambiguous or otherwise unclear source.

I got lost on the way here! I was unable to interpret the last line of his instructions.

Sue has a speech impediment, but fortunately for her, her husband and colleagues were very good at interpreting her speech when she was having a bad day.

Am I the only one who thinks this is too obvious? Others have even mentioned it in the explanation of their answer, but not as the actual answer.



  1. to resolve from confusion or disorderliness
  2. to restore (a scrambled message) to an intelligible form.

Source: Collins English Dictionary

It seems that the origin of the word is the impossibilty to reconstitute the egg once scrambled for an omelette.

  • 1
    Hello, Graffito, and welcome to English Language & Usage. I like this answer—and I like that you provide a definition with the suggested word, and not just the word by itself. But I don't feel that I can upvote the answer until you identify where the definition came from (preferably with a link to the relevant reference work. If you add that information, I will upvote your answer.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 8, 2015 at 6:26

Interpolating in the mathematical or image analytic sense fits here. Free dictionary:

  1. Mathematics a. To estimate a value of (a function or series) between two known values. b. To create a continuous function that incorporates (a finite set of data), such as creating a curve that passes through a fixed set of points or a surface through a fixed set of curves.
  2. To introduce estimated values of (pixel data) into a pixel array to improve the quality of an enlarged digital image.
  • The phantom downvoter strikes again. Employing some sort of algorithm to fill in the spaces between recognized, if noisy, values is a perfectly legitimate tool to discern pattern or meaning where it is not evident at first glance. Aug 8, 2015 at 18:10
  • What algorithm would you run to decipher messy handwriting?
    – Théophile
    Aug 9, 2015 at 2:12
  • Sloppy L's in a word you can recognize tend to look like sloppy L's in words you can't recognize. The same goes for other letters, with exceptions for letters at the start and end of words. Even the sloppiest writers tend to follow some pattern with their lettering, so It's hardly an impossible task; especially these days when cursive has fallen into such disuse. Aug 9, 2015 at 2:55

Translating could apply to writing as well as speech.

  • Construe, render, elucidate -sorta spitballing here...
    – W9WBH
    Aug 8, 2015 at 1:56
  • analyze, distinguish, explicate.
    – W9WBH
    Aug 8, 2015 at 2:24

Sounds like perspicacious

having or showing an ability to notice and understand things that are difficult or not obvious


  • 1
    Some can be perspicacious, but it doesn't fit into the OPs phrase as a verb, the way "deciper" does. Aug 8, 2015 at 5:29

I would say follow, or grasp. It would help to know if this is a formal or informal word though, and whether you are looking for American, British or Australian English or generic.

Follow Collins dictionary

follow (ˈfɒləʊ)

Definitions verb

  • to go or come after in the same direction ⇒ he followed his friend home
  • (transitive) to accompany; attend ⇒ she followed her sister everywhere
  • to come after as a logical or natural consequence
  • (transitive) to keep to the course or track of ⇒ she followed the towpath
  • (transitive) to act in accordance with; obey ⇒ to follow instructions (transitive) to accept the ideas or beliefs of (a previous authority, etc) ⇒ he followed Donne in most of his teachings
  • to understand (an explanation, argument, etc) ⇒ the lesson was difficult to follow
  • to watch closely or continuously ⇒ she followed his progress carefully
  • (transitive) to have a keen interest in ⇒ to follow athletics (transitive) to help in the cause of or accept the leadership of ⇒ the men who followed Napoleon
  • (transitive) to choose to receive messages posted by (a blogger or microblogger) ⇒ I've been following her online (transitive) (rare) to earn a living at or in ⇒ to follow the Navy
  • See follow suit

= accompany, attend, escort, come after, go behind, tag along behind, bring up the rear, come behind, come or go with, tread on the heels of
= pursue, track, dog, hunt, chase, shadow, tail, trail, hound, stalk, run after,
= come after, go after, come next,
= result, issue, develop, spring, flow, proceed, arise, ensue, roll up, emanate, be consequent, supervene
= obey, observe, comply with, adhere to, mind, watch, note, regard, stick to, heed, conform to, keep to, pay attention to, be guided by, toe the line, act according to, act in accordance with, give allegiance to,
= copy, imitate, emulate, mimic, model, adopt, live up to, take a leaf out of someone's book, take as an example, pattern yourself upon
= succeed, replace, come after, take over from, come next, supersede, supplant, take the place of, step into the shoes of
= understand, get, see, catch, realize, appreciate, take in, grasp, catch on, keep up with, comprehend, fathom, get the hang of, get the picture
= keep up with, support, be interested in, cultivate, be devoted to, be a fan of, keep abreast of, be a devotee or supporter of

Grasp (ɡrɑ ːsp) Collins dictionary


  • to grip (something) firmly with or as if with the hands
  • when intr, often followed by at to struggle, snatch, or grope (for)
  • (transitive) to understand, especially with effort

noun * the act of grasping * a grip or clasp, as of a hand * the capacity to accomplish (esp in the phrase within one's grasp) * total rule or possession * understanding; comprehension

= grip, hold, catch, grab, seize, snatch, clutch, clinch, clasp, lay or take hold of
= understand, realize, take in, get, see, follow, catch on, comprehend, get the message about, get the picture about, catch or get the drift of
= grip, hold, possession, embrace, clutches, clasp
= understanding, knowledge, grip, perception, awareness, realization, mastery, ken, comprehension
= reach, power, control, range, sweep, capacity, scope, sway, compass, mastery

Mentioned by others in comments:
* Make out (two words) @user880772
* Comprehend @Elliot Frisch

Pick up is also a good but not one word


A casual usage word I used was make out.

to find or grasp the meaning of

to see and identify with difficulty or effort



I couldn't make out his handwriting.

It was loud and I couldn't make out what she was saying.


Intuit would apply in a situation where the obvious connections in the language are invisible, yet can be internally or spiritually understood. This is the word I associate with my ability to accomplish a task using a sixth sense.


Just want to clarify, because I'm on a word hunt too. This font is far too small, and my vision is going, but im able to parse (is it parse?) What is written as i can make out some key shapes and extrapolate (extrapolate?) From the various recognizable parts and discern what has been written.

There's got to be a word for it. The ability to overlook typos and errors as you read at speed, not stopping to render (render?) Each word individually, but filling in details from context as you go.

  • This just seems to be an expanded description of the problem rather than an answer to the question. Mar 20, 2021 at 7:18


to make (something that is hard to understand) clear or easy to understand (m-w.com)

  • 1
    Hi Slaine. Single word answers aren't a good format for this forum. A better answer will include a definition and example usage. Look at the answer answers here for examples.
    – dwjohnston
    Aug 8, 2015 at 12:51
  • I agree with dwjohnston -- your answer will be more helpful if you copy and paste a definition and a sample sentence (especially since in this case you might discover that elucidate doesn't mean quite what you thought it does) -- but I wanted to add, Welcome to StackExchange! A good place to start familiarizing yourself with the site is the introductory tour: english.stackexchange.com/tour. Aug 8, 2015 at 14:31
  • 1
    elucidate only applies if you are repeating a simpler version of the information elucidate (ɪˈluːsɪˌdeɪt Pronunciation for elucidate ) verb to make clear (something obscure or difficult); clarify Synonyms = clarify, explain, illustrate, interpret, make clear, unfold, illuminate, spell out, clear up, gloss, expound, make plain, annotate, explicate, shed or throw light upon
    – Mousey
    Aug 9, 2015 at 0:01
  • No, elucidation is a speech act, not an act of perception. Elucidate is just a high-faluting term for explain. Aug 10, 2015 at 18:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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