There are pairs like por and para that we noobs mix up all the time helping the native speakers recognize us as the noobs we are. Then there are pairs like entender and comprender that even the native speakers don’t give a damn about. This is your chance to shine. Get these two words right and you’ll earn the bragging rights in Spanish few others have.
Having said that, beating native Spanish speakers at their own language is no mean feat. Entender and comprender get mixed up all the time because there’s a good enough reason. And it’s important that you understand that reason before you proceed to understand their differences. That reason is simple: They are largely synonymous in most contexts as far as the dictionary goes. That’s good news and bad. The good news is that using these two words incorrectly is not gonna be as much of a deal-breaker as, say, mixing up ser and estar will. The bad news is that learning the finer differences between them, should you be interested, warrants a little more efforts than usual because the dictionary won’t cooperate much.
So, long story short, you can easily get by without bothering yourself with this lesson. Or, if you have that ridiculous itch for perfection like I do, this lesson is where you learn to shine. The choice is yours.
Understand the “Depth”
This is one of the most obvious way to tell the two verbs apart. Both entender and comprender translate into to understand. But they don’t imply the same level of understanding. Comprender goes a bit deeper. The following example does a good job illustrating this:
Lo entiendes pero no lo comprendes.
How does that even make any sense at all? You get it but you don’t? Is it one of Schrödinger’s cats we’re listening to? Relax. This is what we call nuance. The level of understanding conveyed by entiendes is not the same as that conveyed by comprendes even though both convey understanding.
To give you some clarity, think entender when you can hear the words I am saying loud and clear and also understand what they mean. Think comprender when you can go beyond that and also see what I’m implying. In other words, think entender when you get what’s being said and comprender when you get why it’s being said. Still unsure? Check out the following scenario:
“Your mother just died.”
“That’s right. I’m really sorry for your loss.”
“I don’t understand! What do you mean my mother died?”
In the above conversation, the person totally gets the news. He knows what the words mother and died mean. And yet he says he doesn’t understand. Here, what he doesn’t get is something deeper than the mere meaning of what he heard. He is in shock and just cannot wrap his head around what he heard. This should help you see the difference between what he understood (entender) and what he didn’t (comprender).
This is the kind of situation where you say something like this:
Te entiendo pero no te comprendo.
You can translate my words but not my intent. This is what depth of understanding implies. Entender is superficial. Comprender is deeper. Entender is when you get me literally. Comprender is when you get my figurative connotations.
There, guess I’ve broken it down enough for you. Anything more and I’ll start getting boringly repetitive. And you don’t want that, do you? Here’s an exhaustive thread on SpanishDict that discusses this very topic in case you’re interested.
Empathy Breaks the Rule
So far we’ve learned that the difference between the two verbs is subtle but absolute. That being said, you won’t be crucified for not honoring those differences in your conversations. That’s because even the native speakers don’t do that most of the time.
However, having a firm handle on these subtle nuances does give you an edge and there’s no denying the bragging rights that come with it. Everybody envies a grammar nazi, right? Well, it usually looks like hatred but you know it’s pure unadulterated envy, don’t you?
Did I say the natives mix the two words up all the time? Well, here’s a catch. There’s a method to their madness. Just like an American’s wrong English is still gonna sound more nuanced than that of a Chinese, a native Spanish-speaker’s incorrect use of entender and comprender is going to sound a whole lot more nuanced as compared to your random goof-ups.
You have already learned that the depth of understanding is the factor at work here. What you didn’t know until now is that there’s exceptions to that rule. And the most important of all exceptions is where understanding implies empathy.
“I am broke. I cannot make the payment today.”
“I totally get it, sir. But today is the due date.”
The above conversation should illustrate empathy quite well, although the second person hardly sounds empathetic. When you say I totally get it in this context, you’re not talking about understanding my language. Of course you get that because I am speaking English, duh! What you mean is you have been in my shoes and can feel my pain. That’s empathy. People say understand as a means of empathizing all the time.
Now, going by our original depth-of-understanding rule, these scenarios should call for comprender. That’s because empathy is obviously a much deeper level of understanding than what entender implies. But as you can guess already, this is where the rule flips.
Most native speakers are heard picking entender over comprender in these situations. I have no idea why they do that but since they do that, I prefer following suit. The exception is easy to commit to memory. Just note how the first syllables of entender and empathy go together! That alone should do the job. Here’s one more example to reinforce the concept of empathy:
“Nobody understands me”
Here, the speaker could mean either of two things. Either you’re trying to speak English in the boonies of North Korea drawing nothing but blanks, or you’re just upset that nobody gives a damn about your feelings because you’re too complicated for the busy world.
Ideally, you would go with entender in the first scenario and comprender in the second. That’s because language barriers are typically considered superficial and qualify for entender. But the second scenario involves a deeper level of understanding, i.e. empathy, which calls for comprender.
But that’s ideal. Remember what I said a few minutes ago about the native speakers flipping the rules when it comes to empathy? This is the reason you’ll wind up getting entender in either scenarios when in a Spanish-speaking country. Again, since this is just a dialectical quirk, you don’t have to remember this exception; it’s not grammatically accurate anyway.
When You Just Can’t Switch Them
You have learned the differences. You have also learned that broadly speaking, you don’t always have to respect those differences and that occasionally using comprender and entender interchangeably is no deal-breaker. There, however, exist situations where you just cannot get away with swapping the two words. These verbs are not interchangeable in all contexts and that’s what we’ll learn here.
Does comprender sound like comprise to you? Of course it does. And that’s because the two words go back to a common Latin origin. That’s also why comprender doesn’t only mean to understand; it also means to comprise, to include, or to consist of. When comprender is used to convey any of these meanings, entender cannot fill in. That’s because the only meaning comprender shares with entender is to understand. Therefore, a sentence like “The team consists of eleven players” leaves no room for ambiguity. The only way it can be translated is:
El equipo comprende once jugadores.
Using entiende in the above sentence would sound hilariously incorrect. One thing to bear in mind here is that comprender in this context means to consist of, which means the of is hardwired here. This is why we say comprende once jugadores and not comprende de once jugadores.
Just as comprender has uses it doesn’t share with entender, the latter has some it doesn’t share with comprender too. This time, it works in its reflexive avatar, entenderse. The context I’m referring to here is the one where entenderse means to get along. If entenderse conveys this meaning in a situation, it cannot be replaced with comprenderse. In case you’re struggling to see a connection between understanding and getting along, think about it. Don’t you need to understand me better if you want us to get along better? That’s the idea behind this connection:
Nos entendemos bien.
The above sentence can be translated in two ways without changing its essence:
We get along well.
We understand each other well.
Natural, don’t you think? But here’s what troubles me: The level of understanding implied when speaking of getting along with someone is anything but superficial. Shouldn’t it take comprenderse then? And this is not even a vernacular anomaly; entenderse is a grammatical mandate here! I honestly don’t know why so I just learned to deal with it. I suggest you did the same too.
By the way, you could also use llevar in the last example:
Nos llevamos bien.
Although llevar generally means to carry, in this context it’s obviously synonymous to entender. Okay, now before I digress further, here’s a fun conversational quirk for you: If you didn’t understand something being said and wanted to state the same, you could get away with both no entiendo and no comprendo. However, most native speakers show a slight bias in favor of no entiendo in this situation. Why? Because they find it a tad more polite. Huh! How come?
Remember what I said in the very beginning about the difference in depth of understanding between entender and comprender? Well, turns out that’s what this bias is all about. Comprender implies a deeper level of understanding; so if I don’t understand you on that level, it means we have no language issues and that you’re just not being able to convey your thoughts efficiently. It kinda places the blame for non-comprehension squarely on the speaker. That’s why comprender sounds a wee bit rude. If, however, I say no entiendo, it means that I am unable to understand even the words you’re saying. This places the blame on my own language skills and hence, a bit more polite. Might seem a bit contrived in the beginning but it all makes sense if you think about it.
The Trick to Retain It All
How could I end such a long-winding post without sharing some black-magic with you? That would be a shame because after all, trickery is the very essence of these posts! The very first trick to remembering the differences I discussed above is perhaps the most obvious one too. It’s the similarity between comprender and comprehend. Don’t tell me it didn’t occur to you already. The two words share a common etymology which explains the similarity in not only how they look but also what they mean. To comprehend is to understand deeply which is what comprender means too. This is not even a trick – it’s common sense.
If the above idea doesn’t work for you, try seeing comprender as the act of complete understanding. The similar ring between comprender and complete should be all the help you need there. And once you have comprender down, you would easily know what entender is. In fact, the first syllables of entender and understand also sound quite similar, don’t they? There you go, that’s yet another memory hook for you right there.
This is just my way of retaining it all. Like I always say, everyone has a unique flair with imagination and you’re capable of doing much better than me. Just give it a spin and you’ll be surprised with yourself. Etymology and word-association are the answers to the toughest of vocabulary challenges one could throw at you.