'Entender' vs. 'Comprender'

Verbs for 'to understand' can usually be used interchangeably

boy running
Nadie me comprende. (Nobody understands me.). Woodleywonderworks/Creative Commons.

Both comprender and entender are usually translated as "to understand," and in many cases — in fact, most of the time — you can use them interchangeably. However, there are some subtle differences in how they may come across.

Differences Between Entender and Comprender

The main difference between the two verbs when they mean "to understand" can be seen in the saying "Te entiendo, pero no te comprendo," which obviously makes little sense if you try translating it as "I understand you, but I don't understand you." Perhaps a better way of understanding this sentence would be something like "I understand the words you're saying but I don't understand what you mean."

Comprender, then, can suggest a deeper type of understanding. If you speak with an accent and want to know if you're getting your words across, for example, you might ask: ¿Me entiendes? But if what you're looking for is whether the listener understands the implications of what you're saying, the question "¿Me comprendes?" may be more appropriate.

In real life, though, these differences may not be all that distinct, and you may hear one verb used when the above guidelines suggest using the other. For example, "I know exactly what you mean" could be translated as either "Te comprendo perfectamente" or "Te entiendo perfectamente" (the latter appears to be more common) and the same goes for "Nadie me comprende" and "Nadie me entiende" for "Nobody understands me." In other words, as a Spanish student you needn't worry too much about which verb to use in most contexts. As you hear and use the two verbs, you'll pick up on whatever subtle differences exist between them in your locality.

Note that comprender can also have the meanings "to cover," "to enclose" or "to include" (and thus have a meaning related to the English word "comprehensive" rather than to "comprehend," both of which come from the same Latin source). Example: El territorio de la provincia comprende tres regiones bien diferenciadas. (The provincial territory includes three distinctive regions.) Entiende cannot be substituted in this sentence.

Sample Sentences Using Entender and Comprender

Here are examples of these two verbs in use:

  • Si yo quiero comprender a alguien, no puedo condenarlo; debo observarlo, estudiarlo. (If I want to understand someone, I can't judge him; I need to observe him, study him.)
  • Todavía no puedo entender de lo que se me acusa. (I still can't understand what I'm being accused of.)
  • Mis padres comprendían que esta era mi personalidad y no trataron de cambiar mi modo de ser. (My parents understood that that was my personality and didn't try to change how I was.)
  • Si hubiera entendido el frío que iba a sentir, no me hubiera depilado. (If I had understood how cold it would feel, I wouldn't have shaved.)
  • Comprendemos perfectamente las dificultades y errores que se cometen en una lucha tan larga. (We understand perfectly the difficulties and mistakes that are made in such a grand struggle.)
  • La película la entendí a medias; hay ciertas cosas que se escapaban a mi comprensión. (I didn't completely understand the movie; there are certain things that eluded my understanding.)
  • Solo los sabios lo comprenderán. (Only the wise will understand it.)
  • Creo que son pocas las personas que lo entienden como realmente es. (I believe that few are the people who understand it as it really is.)

Using Entender With Prefixes

Entender, although not comprender, can be combined with prefixes to form several other verbs, although none are in widespread use.

Malentender can be used for "to misunderstand," although both entender mal and misinterpretar are more common.

  • Malentendí algo y me ayudaste a entenderlo. (I misunderstood something and you helped me to understand it.)
  • Es una broma que muchos malentendieron. (It is a joke that many misunderstood.)

Desentenderse can be used to refer to the avoiding of understanding, intentionally or otherwise.

  • Poco a poco me desentendí de las partituras y empecé a improvisar. (Little by little I ignored the sheet music and began to improvise.)
  • Nuestros líderes se desentienden del nuevo escándalo económico. (Our leaders are looking the other way from the new economic scandal.)

Sobrentender (sometimes spelled sobreentender) refers to complete understanding.

  • Sobrentiendo que no soy adicto y que no he substituido una droga por otra. (I know full well I am not an addict and that I haven't substituted one drug for another.)
  • Espero que sobrentiendas el costo de tus acciones. (I hope you completely understand the cost of your actions.)