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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

Comprender Vs. Entender: Do You Understand?

These are words that get mixed up by even native speakers, let alone noobs like us. Going by the dictionary, both are synonymous and have the same translation in English. However, the two have quite dissimilar connotations. Now the good news here is that mixing up comprender and entender is not a exactly deal-breaker like mixing up, say, ser and estar or por and para. So depending on how far ahead you are in your Spanish learning program, this might be a non-issue. However, if you’re like me and suffer from an itch for perfection, knowing where to use one instead of the other is surely the difference between a rookie and a native.

Difference in one word: Depth

When you don’t know their language, it’s no entiendo
When you don’t know their language, it’s no entiendo
Photo credit: Alpha licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Although both comprender and entender translate into the same thing in English, “to understand,” the difference lies in the depth of the understanding being referred to. Take the following expression for example:

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.

Exceptions: Empathy

When your dog, understands you, it’s comprender
When your dog, understands you, it’s comprender
Photo credit: Mavi Villatoro licensed CC BY 2.0
So you see, the differences are subtle but certain. You won’t blow it by using one where you should use the other but it’s always good to have a firm grasp on these basics if your goal is to sound as native as it gets. Having said that, these differences are not always honored in real life scenarios and, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, even the natives are guilty of mixing them up often. But there’s still a method to the madness. The natives don’t just randomly mix up the words; instead, they follow a certain pattern which you’ll get only with constant exposure. Those are exceptions with no logic.

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.

The trick

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.

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