A dog looks into a mirror and sees his own image. He thinks that is another dog, so he barks at that dog.

Do we say "The dog mistook/misunderstood his image in the mirror for another dog"?

When do we use the verb "mistake" and "misunderstand"?

  • 5
    Note that we usually say "his reflection" (or "its reflection") rather than "his image in the mirror".
    – ruakh
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 19:35
  • 1
    For what it's worth, dogs aren't often confused by mirrors because they depend more on smell and hearing than vision. They might see another dog, but since they don't smell one, they tend to not be all that interested. Obviously varies from one dog to the next, but this is off-topic. Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 19:37
  • @ruakh, the dictionary says "image", eg "He stared at his own image reflected in the water." oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/image?q=image
    – Tom
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 5:22
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    @Tom: The same dictionary also has "reflection", with the example "He admired his reflection in the mirror": oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/reflection. It's not wrong to say "his image in the mirror", it's just much more common to say "his reflection".
    – ruakh
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 6:37
  • For a famous example of this usage see the book and the opera entitled "The man who mistook his wife for a hat".
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 17:47

5 Answers 5

  • We use 'misunderstand' about things that could be understood, or comprehended, to mean that the understanding is wrong.

  • We use 'mistook' to mean something has been identified wrongly as something or someone else.

To see one dog and think it was another, "mistook" is the most appropriate.

Although "mistook" is the past tense of "mistake", remember that there are multiple uses of 'mistake' both as a noun and a verb, but 'mistook' only really applies to the one use of it.


"to mistake something for something" means to think one thing is a different thing than it actually is.


  • "he mistook her for his wife" - he thought she was his wife, but she wasn't.
  • "he mistook the mirror for a window" - he thought the mirror was a window, but it wasn't.

To misunderstand something is to not understand it correctly. Sometimes they overlap. If you mistake a window for a door, then perhaps you misunderstand the layout of the room.

In your particular case, you can say that the dog mistook his image for another dog, or that the dog misunderstood his image, or perhaps that the dog misunderstood the mirror. However, "misunderstand something for something" is not a valid combination. You could say "the dog misunderstood his image in the mirror and thought it was another dog." - here, we're joining two sentences together with "and".


It's "mistook", and the reason is that "mistake for" is based on "take for", meaning "believe to be". ("Take" means something like "perceive" in this instance.)

For instance, you could say "I took him for a policeman", meaning "I thought he was a policeman".

But "I understood him for a policeman" won't work. So it's the same with "mistake" and "misunderstand".


We can use either verb here; but misundersand does not take a for phrase as a complement.

Here is a grammar pattern where either verb can be used:

The dog { misunderstood | mistook } its own reflection {as being | to be} another dog.

Some possible patterns for misunderstood follow. It can take a direct object. An object can have a meaning, and we can say that we misunderstand that meaning by way of saying we misunderstand that object:

The dog misunderstood its own reflection, believing it to be another dog.

It can take an entire clause, with a that complement:

The dog misunderstood that the reflection in the mirror is another dog, rather than itself.

Mistook works with for:

The dog mistook its own reflection for another dog.

Misunderstanding refers to some fact or situation. Mistaking X for Y means suffering from the wrong belief that X is Y, which is a misunderstanding that X is Y.


Two possibilities:

  1. The dog took his image in the mirror for (that of) another dog.
    This uses the expression to take someone/something for in the sense of to mistake them for. We might say, for instance: I took him for a fool but he turned out to be smart.

  2. Or: The dog took mistook his image in the mirror for (that of) another dog.

Misunderstand doesn't fit well here.


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