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Is there a difference between having/getting etc a grasp of something and a grip on something, when you mean knowledge/understanding?


Merriam Webster defines grip , in this sense, as "mental grasp", which makes pinpointing any difference, if there is one, even harder.


A few examples:

  • can't seem to get a grip on calculus (Webster)
  • a remarkable grasp of the subject (Webster)
  • Her grasp of the issues was impressive; Steve has a good grasp of the European legal system; We're still trying to get a grasp on the situation. (Longman)
  • I’m just trying to get a grip on what’s happening; She was losing her grip on reality. (Longman)
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The words grip and grasp are such near synonyms that the difference between expressions to get a grip and to get a grasp may be a matter of one's preference or idiolect. Consider primary definitions offered up by Google:

Grip... take and keep a firm hold of; grasp tightly.

Grasp... a firm hold or grip.

Grip is rooted in OE - grippa (v) or gripe (n); Grasp is linked to ME, possibly grope.

Grip may have a slightly more informal or idiosyncratic sense when applied to a subject (such as calculus), and Grasp may be idiomatically inappropriate in the sense of self-control (Get a grasp on yourself doesn't necessarily sound right), but as a matter of hard and fast definitions, the denotative difference between the words will be subtle at best.

As part of common expressions, grip may be firmer and perhaps more forceful: after all, Beowulf grapples Grendel in a "mund-gripe", tearing his talon off in the process. While not taken lightly, the possibly younger grasp may be just a bit more deliberate, and therefore more appropriate to an idea than an object or enemy. Even so, Shakespeare placed "a barren Scepter in my Gripe" (Macbeth, III i) only to see a legion of editors turn Gripe into grasp.

So this one may be tough to call.

  • Not sure why we've both been downvoted - your answer's as good as mine :o) – Will Crawford Feb 14 '18 at 10:53
  • @WillCrawford - hard to tell - obviously someone doesn't like certain uncertainty. I like your answer as well, and am upvoting... – Rob_Ster Feb 14 '18 at 17:49
  • reciprocating :o) – Will Crawford Feb 14 '18 at 19:18
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Although the words themselves are near perfect synonyms, the uses you're struggling with are long-established (and subtle).

Get a grip means to take control of yourself, and possibly exercise authority (natural or official) in a situation. The origin of grip(s) in this context is a battlefield metaphor, stemming from grappling (which uses come to grips with in its definition). Collins puts it a little more directly:

(often foll by with)
a. to deal with (a problem or subject)
b. to tackle (an assailant)

and like many other sources gives the alternate form come to grips with.

Get a grasp means - the subtlety - to understand something.

It might help to think of grip as getting hold of something to wield it (or wrestle with it), versus to carry or simply keep hold of it. It's not a black-and-white distinction, but one is a bit more active than the other¹.

It doesn't help that we use grasp more like the first sense in phrases like graps the nettle, but sometimes the distinction is useful; for example you could replace both uses with master (a subject or situation) ... and lose that difference in meaning.

The use of grasp in reference to a field of study, is again more about "getting it into your head" and couldn't get a grasp has a sense like couldn't get a foothold in climbing (and I've heard the latter used in a figurative sense about academic study too).

¹ More anecdata: https://www.quora.com/Is-the-expression-to-come-to-grips-with-something-similar-to-to-come-to-terms-with-something/answer/Robert-Harvey-41

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