Difference Between “Comprehend” and “Understand”

Very often in the English language you’ll try to gauge whether two given words are synonyms. Are there any differences between “comprehend” and “understand”? Or do they always mean the exact same thing? Are there any contexts where they mean different things? This article will answer all these questions.

Difference Between “Comprehend” and “Understand”

“Comprehend” and “understand” usually mean the same thing, and can be used to talk about the same concepts. However, the main difference between them is the fact that “comprehend” can be used to talk about the message, while “understand” is used for the outcome.

difference between comprehend and understand

This means that when you’re talking about the meaning of the outcome of something, you want to use “understand”, while “comprehend” is the word you’d use when talking about the process that something uses.

This difference is not a particularly relevant one to most contexts, however, and it’s fair to say that “comprehend” and “understand” are freely interchangeable most of the time.


“Comprehend” is a word that refers to the full understanding of something, that is to say, it’s a word you’d use in the context of comprehending the entirety of a given mechanism or process. However, you can freely use it as a synonym for “understand”.

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, “comprehend” means “to understand something completely”. The final part, “completely”, is the relevant part to understand what “comprehend” can encompass as opposed to simply “understand”.

Here are some examples of “comprehend” in context:

  1. I failed to comprehend the way in which that particular exercise had to be developed.
  2. She fully comprehends the process and the consequences of the process, and is prepared.
  3. He comprehended the ideas discussed at the time, but I think he forgot about them since.
  4. They comprehend that, by doing what they’re doing, they are on a course with no other alternatives.
  5. I comprehend what you’re saying to me, and I’m ready for my final exam nonetheless.


“Understand” is a word that is used when talking about the meaning of things, and the idea of knowing a particular meaning. You use “understand” generally when referring to the outcome of a process as opposed to the process in its entirety.

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, “understand” means “to know the meaning of something that someone says”. The emphasis on what someone is saying in this definition points to the link between “understand” and outcomes.

Here are several examples of “understand” to teach you how to use the term:

  1. I understand what you mean, and I will prepare myself for the test on Monday.
  2. She understands the terms outlined, and will not sign anything without her lawyer.
  3. He doesn’t understand the consequences that his little prank will have on the faculty.
  4. They understand that by winning that year’s competition they’ve started a war.
  5. I understand if you’re upset by what I’m about to tell you, but I’m prepared to say it anyway.

Which Is Used the Most?

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, “understand” is used significantly more than “comprehend” is, to an extreme degree, though both get consistent use nonetheless.

difference between comprehend and understand usage

The information showcased is really interesting, as it demonstrates the fact that since the year 1900, both “understand” and “comprehend” have seen consistent use.

However, “understand” has been more popular of a term than “comprehend” for that entire time, with a gap that is profoundly unsurmountable.

This is because “comprehend” can sometimes be seen as a more ornate and formal synonym for “understand”, and therefore “understand” is the default term for many people to use.

An interesting fact is that even though it was already a popular term, around the year 1983 “understand” started a spike in growth that lasted all the way until 2017, when it stabilized.

Ultimately, the information proves that “understand” is a significantly more common word than “comprehend”, and that this fact will not change any time soon.

Final Thoughts

“Comprehend” and “understand” are not completely equivalent terms, as the former is used to talk about a process, and the latter to talk about an outcome. However, they are very often interchangeable and used for the same objectives, and are synonyms of each other because of this.