Extracted from the second thesaurus explanation in the Oxford Dictionary:

Understand or grasp?

You can use understand or grasp for the action of realizing the meaning or importance of something for the first time:

It's a difficult concept for children to understand/grasp.

Only understand can be used to talk about languages, words, or writing. So, this is incorrect:

I don't grasp French/the instructions.

With respect to the preceding definition, I am wondering if B is correct usage, where A is the intended meaning:

A.I do not understand the book

B.I do not grasp the book

  • 1
    IMO when to grasp is used meaning to comprehend it usually goes with an abstract noun, because if you use it to refer to an inanimate object, it might be difficult to understand whether you can’t understand the book, or you just can’t hold it firmly in your hand. So the first sentence should read something like: “I can’t grasp the meaning/essence/main idea of the book”. Also, as far as I have seen grasp in this context is used in past tenses, passive or with modal verbs (such as can).
    – Lucky
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 11:00
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    Given that the second definition says "to understand completely", I'm not entirely sure what you're asking about. Commented May 16, 2015 at 20:24

1 Answer 1


To put it simply, I would say that grasp means "beginning to understand" something difficult or obscure, as opposed to understand, which implies a rather complete and satisfactory comprehension of the matter.

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