Difference in one word: Depth
|When you don’t know their language, it’s no entiendo|
Photo credit: Alpha licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Entiendes, pero no comprendes
To untrained ears, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. You understands but you don’t understand? What is it, some kind of riddle? A mixed message? Is it Schröedinger’s cat talking? Well, not exactly. The expression makes perfect sense and is as valid as any other. The first understanding, entender, refers to simply understanding on a superficial level whereas the second, comprender implies a deeper understanding. It’s like when you can understand my words and what they mean, that’s entender. But when you can read between the lines and understand what I am implying or, in other words, you can see why I said what I said, that’s comprender. Still confused? Try this situation:
“The world is ending tomorrow!”
“I said the world is ending tomorrow. Do you understand?”
“Yes I get it but I don’t know what you mean!”
Here, you know what the world is ending tomorrow means, nice and clear. But you’re still confused about what I mean. I mean you’re wondering why I am saying this to you and where did I get that information about the world ending, etc. All you can understand is what my words mean, not the back-story. In Spanish, this would be a case for entender:
Te entiendo, pero no te comprendo.
That’s what I mean by depth. When you understand what’s being spoken, it’s entender. When you understand that and more, it’s comprender. Or, when you understand it literally, it’s entender, but when you understand its figurative connotations, it’s comprender. Comprender entails an understanding of not only what’s being said but also its implications.
|When your dog, understands you, it’s comprender|
Photo credit: Mavi Villatoro licensed CC BY 2.0
One such exception is when understanding implies empathy. Say, I told you that my dog is sick. Here, the most common response would be something like:
“I totally understand, man.”
Of course you understand what I said, you speak English. But that’s not what you mean here. What you mean is more like:
“I can see how that feels. I’ve been through it before.”
That’s empathy. Ideally, such situations call for comprender because empathy is just a much deeper understanding of someone’s feelings or situation. However, most native speakers tend to side with entender in these situations. Don’t ask me why, that’s how they roll. Similarly, when you say nobody understands you, you could mean one of the two things. Either you’re speaking English in the boonies of Mongolia where nobody understands your words for obvious reasons, or you’re just a complicated person and nobody gives a damn about your thoughts and feelings. If it’s the first, you would say:
Nadie me entiende.
And if it’s the second, you’d go with:
Nadie me comprende (the understanding being referred to here is deeper, i.e. empathy).
However, most native speakers of Spanish would go with the first translation in either context. So, just remember, regardless of the rule about depth, empathy usually takes entender. Well, doesn’t matter if you don’t remember this anyway since this is not a rule of grammar, just a vernacular quirk.
Where the two cannot be interchanged
Although omprender and entender are broadly synonymous, there do exist situations where they have translations they don’t share between them. One such instance is in the case of comprender. Beside understand, this verb can also mean “to consist of,” “to include,” or “to comprise.” Notice a ring of similarity between comprise and comprender? That’s because the two words descend from a common Latin ancestor. This usage is reserved for comprender and entender cannot fill in here. So a sentence like “A team consists of 11 players,” will be translated as:
El equipo comprende diez jugadores.
The following translation would be hilariously wrong:
El equipo entiende diez jugadores.
Oh and note that the of in consists of remains untranslated because comprender covers it. That’s why we say comprende diez jugadores and not comprende de diez jugadores.
Just as comprender has a meaning it doesn’t share with entender, entender has one to itself too. In this case, it’s the reflexive form, entenderse, and the meaning is “to get along.” In this context, you cannot use comprender.
Nos entendemos bien.
We get along well or we understand each other well.
The above example, despite alluding to empathy, takes entenderse and not comprenderse. This is not a matter of regional preference but a grammatical mandate. Another way of stating the above example is using llevarse:
Nos llevamos bien.
In this context, llevarse and entenderse, both mean the same thing.
Speaking of comprender vs. entender, here’s a fun fact. When you don’t understand something being said, you can get away with both no entiendo and no comprendo; however, to many native speakers no entiendo would sound slightly more polite in this context. Why? Remember what I said about a “deeper understanding” as implied by comprender? That’s what this preference is all about. When you say no comprendo, you essentially place the blame on the speaker for not being coherent enough for you. But when you say no entiendo, you hold yourself and only yourself responsible for not understanding them.
It would be a shame to close the post without some handy trick around remembering the key difference between the two words. That’s what this site is all about, right? So here’s the thing, comprender sounds an awful lot like comprehend and that’s because the two words share a common etymology. Now in English, comprehend is a lot deeper than understand and we don’t have any problem telling one from the other. This is not even a trick, it’s basic etymology. If comprender maps to comprehend, entender maps to whatever is left, i.e. understand.
If that doesn’t cut it for you, think of comprender as a case of complete understanding, the depth we were talking about. The comp- in both comprender and complete will ensure you don’t forget the correlation. And if you have this correlation down, it’s easy to see entender for what it really is.
This is just one way of nailing these two words. I am sure, you can come up with even better ideas of your own with just a little ingenuity. Etymology and word-association are your two most versatile tools when it comes to taming difficult foreign words and there’s an entire book that breaks it down for you if you’re learning Spanish. But regardless of whether you choose to get my book, I strongly recommend that you get creative with your learning if you don’t like demotivation and inefficiency killing your endeavor.