I used to ask questions as "how do I understand this word", and was told that it's wrong. People suggest me to use "What does this word mean" instead.

Why is this way to query wrong? What about if I change it to "how do I understand this word in this context"?


Only you know how you "do " understand it.

What you want to know is how you "should" understand it. Or, in other words, how most native speakers would understand it. Or in other words, what it means.

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  • Will "how should I understand this word" still sound odd? – wang zhihao Jul 4 '15 at 7:54
  • Yeah, a bit, but not odd enough that people would complain about it! I sure wouldn't. – Brian Hitchcock Jul 4 '15 at 8:21
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    @wangzhihao "What does this word mean?" is the ordinary colloquial form, and you would use it if you had no idea what the word meant -- if it doesn't appear in your dictionary, for instance. *How should I understand this word?" is more formal and academic; it would be particularly appropriate if the meaning were ambiguous, if you knew two or three possible senses and were uncertain which was intended. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 4 '15 at 11:44
  • Good point. It also occurs to me that one might think "how do I understand [word]" is a construction like "How do I get to [place]", which is correct and colloquial. But in that sense it would be asking what is the process that leads to understanding. – Brian Hitchcock Jul 4 '15 at 12:29

"How do I understand this word?" sounds to me like you are asking for a process rather than a definition. I'd be inclined to answer, "Well, you have to think about it like this: Suppose you were a farmer and you had ten cows ..." or whatever, some story like that. But "What does this word mean?" calls for a definition.

In any case, the conventional way to ask the question is, "What does this word mean?" (Or, "What is the definition of this word?") I'm sure there are many other phrasings that would be arguably correct, but they're just not what fluent speakers say.

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