1. Henry could not comprehend the message.
  2. Henry could not understand the message.

Are those sentences the same in meaning perfectly?


9 Answers 9


Rarely are two synonyms "the same in meaning perfectly".

You've provided no additional context, so it will be natural for the reader to imagine some.

I can think of a few different ways a sentence like this might be used.

  1. The message was sent in French, and Henry doesn't speak French. Therefore, Henry could not understand the message.

  2. The message was sent of over the radio, but the reception was very poor, and the message was garbled. Therefore, Henny could not understand the message.

  3. The message was about calculus, and Henry has never taken any math higher than geometry. Therefore, Henry could not understand the message.

  4. The message was from Henry's lover, announcing that she wants to leave him. Henry thought their relationship was very solid; this pronouncement caught him totally by surprise. Therefore, Henry is having trouble comprehending the message.

I think both words could be used in all four contexts, but I still maintain there are some contexts where a writer might find one word might be a little bit more suitable than the other.

As a footnote, even though my answer differs from Lorel's answer, I'm still largely in agreement with that answer, too. As Lorel says, it takes a lot of work to "imagine some quirky nuance" where one word might work better than the other, and, as Lorel also states, "generally those two sentences mean exactly the same thing." But it's worth pointing out that there, depending on the context, one synonym might seem more fitting than the other, depending on why the message is so difficult to understand or comprehend.

  • 2
    I didn't find anything particularly illuminating about either of the other two answers, but I think your first sentence and your final example do get us nearer to the truth. As native speakers, you and I both understand perfectly well that we probably wouldn't be at all likely to use comprehend in this sentence, for example :). But one point that might be worth making (implicit in your final example) is that when you can't comprehend something, it's usually the whole broad concept, whereas you might not understand some minor detail. Jan 11, 2019 at 15:41
  • 3
    (You can't understand something that hasn't been explained to you, but you can't comprehend something that's simply too complex / unfamiliar for your mind to take in.) Jan 11, 2019 at 17:21

From the Merriam-Webster definition of understand:

UNDERSTAND and COMPREHEND are very often interchangeable. UNDERSTAND may, however, stress the fact of having attained a firm mental grasp of something // orders that were fully understood and promptly obeyed // COMPREHEND may stress the process of coming to grips with something intellectually // I have trouble comprehending your reasons for doing this.

That is, both words mean "grasp the meaning of," but in some cases understand stresses the final result, while comprehend stresses the process of getting there. Most people use these words interchangeably, so this difference in stress isn't really apparent in isolated sentences like your examples, but in a larger context, choosing one word over the other could be appropriate.

For example:

Even though I tried to explain it to him for at least fifteen minutes in a dozen different ways, Henry could not comprehend the message. [stresses the process of trying and failing to comprehend]

Because Henry could not understand the message, he never returned my phone call. [stresses the result of the misunderstanding]

  • 3
    I don't comprehend how this answer hasn't been given more votes.
    – Wildcard
    Jan 11, 2019 at 22:53

They are the same.

Even if some people may imagine some personal quirky nuances to distinguish between the two words in meaning, generally those two sentences mean exactly the same thing.

  • Your answer is not complete, it should include examples or references. As a learner, it's not useful for me to have people tell "it's the same" without any examples. Please, add them.
    – Quidam
    Jan 16, 2020 at 5:51

Look at the association of comprehend with "comprehensive" -- full, encompassing. "Comprehend" has the connotation of full understanding.

The Spanish verb "comprender" is translated to English as "to understand", by the way. So that suggests how close these words are in ultimate meaning, despite different origins.

Vocabulary.com notes the following:

The English "comprehend" originates from the Latin comprehendere, which means “catch" or "seize."

So there's the aspect of a comprehending being a process -- grasping something to eventually understand it. Secondary meanings of "comprehend" are closer to "encompass" or "hold."

  • The English "comprehend" originates from old French. (and the old French originates from Latin).
    – Quidam
    Jan 16, 2020 at 5:51

Understanding an order will cause one to follow it with no need of it's origin or finality. Comprehending an order will cause one to use discernment in the purpose of it's origin and finalization. Comprehension tends to encompass the full knowledge of a situation. One can say I do not fully understand, while saying I comprehend means you thoroughly understand. Most people understand English very few comprehend the meanings of the words.

  • Answers about the meanings of words should be backed up with dictionary definitions and links to those definitions.
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 27, 2020 at 1:53

I understood every word of what he was saying but I did not comprehend the message he was conveying.

To me this shows the difference

  • Welcome to English Language Learners! Please explain why your answer is correct; answers without explanation don't teach the patterns of English well and may be deleted.
    – Glorfindel
    Aug 10, 2020 at 20:31

understand is a subset of comprehension. you have to understand various things in order to comprehend something when you comprehend something is because you can see the implications and connection and consequences. comprehension is a bigger picture than understanding


To Understand is to become aware of the significance that is with in information . While Comprehending is to take in the meaning of informations significants or importance of it being able to grasp the information and then use it making you a competent person in its significance using the information

  • This adds nothing to the existing answers. And the random use of inappropriate bold text makes it very difficult to read.
    – Chenmunka
    Aug 31, 2023 at 15:14
  • Am I not allowed to give my own answer. Which in short describes the difference within the two words while others answers write them off as the same
    – Longlost13
    Aug 31, 2023 at 15:22
  • One can understand how electricity and its implications while not being able to comprehend electricity as Tesla had being able implement its knowledge
    – Longlost13
    Aug 31, 2023 at 15:25
  • The bold wording it self reads Understand the significance in information Comprehending the meaning of it to grasp the information then use it
    – Longlost13
    Aug 31, 2023 at 15:28
  • Which by your response shows you had believed you understood my answer clamming that it had not added anything to the other existing answers but you seem to have not comprehended it fully being it self an example. Of the difference of both words
    – Longlost13
    Aug 31, 2023 at 15:42

I would say, understand indicates that one follows the sequence of a given system (here a sentence) with no problem. But comprehend would question its logic. In the fourth example described above, the person has no problem in understanding the message per se. However, given his perception of the state of the relationship, he does not find logical the meaning of the message, that is, the desition of the lover.

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