5
  1. I don't speak acceptable English, but I can make myself understood.

  2. I don't speak acceptable English, but I can make myself understand.

  3. I don't speak acceptable English, but I can make myself understandable.

Why are "understand" and/or "understandable" ungrammatical, while "understood" is not?

Or, are "understand" and "understandable" in some way acceptable English when they are used like in 2 or 3 respectively? If so, can anybody explain the difference in meaning between 1 and 2 and 3?

2

The verb to make has various meanings in English, but the sentences that you are asking about all (roughly) refer to the same grammar rule, that is of causing, provoking a certain effect.

Generally, you use the construct to make someone do something to indicate that you oblige or force someone to do as you wish, or else that you cause something to happen; see for example

My father made me stay at home on Friday night.

That film always makes me laugh my head off.

If the object of the verb is a reflexive pronoun, then instead of an infinitive form we use a past participle, because the meaning is passive; with this construct you are saying that you allow, or make it possible for you to be understood/seen/heard by others. Hence your first sentence, which is very frequent.

In your third sentence you are using an adjective instead of a verb, which results in a perfectly grammatical sentence with the similar meaning to the first, i.e. that others can understand you, although it seems to imply some kind of effort, and it is not so frequently used.

Finally, the second sentence has a completely different meaning, because here it is you who manage to understand something, through clear effort on your part. To try and clarify, consider the following example :

I made myself understand her reasons for deserting me.

3

I don't speak acceptable English, but I can make myself understood.

Here, you are saying that other people can understand what you are saying.

I don't speak acceptable English, but I can make myself understand.

This means that you can understand what other people are saying to you.

I don't speak acceptable English, but I can make myself understandable.

Finally, the third example means that you can make yourself capable of being understood.

As this Ngram shows, understood is used almost exclusively in this context, while the others rarely occur:

Ngram

  • ctype, if sentence #2 means that you can understand what other people are saying to you, shouldn't it be "understanding" or "understader" rather than "understand"? Please, excuse me if I seem confuse(d). – user114 Feb 1 '13 at 18:13
  • 1
    @Carlo_R. In this context, understanding implies that you understand how they feel, while understand means that you understand what they are saying. An understander is someone who understands; since it is a noun, it cannot be used in this context. – ctype.h Feb 1 '13 at 18:22
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    @Carlo_R.: In make myself understood, it's a "passive past tense" effectively functioning as an adjective. In make myself understand it's a "bare infinitive". Consider the anorexic who says "I [must] make myself eat". And note that most "main verbs" don't allow the bare infinitive in such constructions - the anorexic would have to say "I force myself to eat", for example. – FumbleFingers Feb 1 '13 at 22:19
2

The first sentence means that you can make other people understand you, and, in most situations, that is what you will want to say.

The other two sentences are grammatical, but they’re much less likely to occur. The second sentence means that you can make yourself understand something if you really want to. The third sentence means that you can speak in such a way that people will understand what you do say, but it is not a substitute for the first sentence.

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