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What is the difference between erfassen and verstehen? Both mean to comprehend, but in what context is erfassen used?

  1. Ich verstehe den Satz sehr gut.
  2. Ich erfasse den Satz sehr gut.
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it's interesting that there's a similar distinction in the English language: verstehen is derived from stehen, ie to stand and we get to the English equivalent to understand; now, erfassen is derived from fassen, which translates as to grasp, which can also used with the meaning of mentally grasping a concept and thus erfassen –  Christoph Dec 26 '13 at 10:42

2 Answers 2

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Verstehen is the most general to understand and you basically do that with facts and rules.

Erfassen is shifted toward a grasping something in its complete scope. You could maybe think of it as to fathom. So I think you can erfassen something without really understanding it.

Du willst also nackt zum Nordpol laufen? - Du hast es erfasst.

So you want to walk naked to the North Pole? - You got it.

No understanding implied.

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Verstehen is the more general term, as illustrated by the following example:

You can fail to understand a spoken sentence because you did not hear it correctly, or because you failed to grasp its meaning; verstehen covers both cases, erfassen just the latter.

It's interesting that the images used in the German and English language are quite close to each other:

  • verstehen is derived from stehen, ie to stand with the corresponding to understand
  • erfassen is derived from fassen, ie to grasp which can mean either of these two words

In the second case, the correspondence is not perfect, though: First, begreifen is probably even closer etymologically, but I'd translate that as to comprehend. Second, fassen can also mean to catch. Erfassen cannot be used in the sense of

I didn't catch that.

though, but rather

This catches its meaning nicely.

Note that

Ich erfasse den Satz sehr gut.

isn't really something a native speaker would say (at least I wouldn't).

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Richtig, eher würde man die Bedeutung eines Satzes erfassen, oder den Grund, warum ein Satz gesagt wurde, usw. –  Ingo Dec 26 '13 at 18:01

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