synonyms for: I (don't) understand

  Cotton reels

Stefan Babec from the Slovak Republic writes:

Could you please explain to me the expression
in this sentence:

...they do not cotton to the idea that...


Roger Woodham replies:

cotton to / cotton on to

To cotton to means to like, to admire or to become attached to. The allusion is to a thread of cotton which very easily attaches itself to clothing for example. It is an expression which is not used very much any more in contemporary British English.

Much more common is the colloquial expression to cotton on to which means to catch on or to grasp a line of thought:

  • They didn't know much English and it was surprising how quickly they cottoned on / caught on to what I was saying.
  • He still hasn't cottoned on to the fact that I'm not in the least bit interested in him.

The allusion is the same as before: cotton fibres or threads which become attached to clothing.



lose the thread /pick up the thread(s)

Other expressions which use the idea of cotton threads are to lose the thread of something and the opposite to pick up the thread(s).

To lose the thread means to lose one's train of thought because of some sort of interruption or digression. To pick up the thread(s) means to resume one's line of argument or to get back into the way of things:

  • I haven't done this sort of work for over five years so it will take me a while to pick up the threads.
  • I'm going back to John and we're going to try to pick up the threads of our marriage.
  • Sorry, I've lost the thread of what you were saying. Could you go back over that last bit again?



I don't understand

English, and particularly British English, appears to be incredibly rich with informal expressions for I don't understand. Here are a selection of the most common. Can any of you answer these difficult questions?

If someone is described as 'sagacious', what does it mean they are?

  • I don't know
  • I've (got) no idea
  • I haven't (got) a clue

Which British king is supposed to have imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London?

  • I haven't (got) the faintest
  • I haven't (got) the foggiest
  • I've got no notion

Notion is another word for idea. Originally, we would have said:

  • I haven't got the faintest / foggiest / slightest idea.

But now, it is sufficient to say:

  • I haven't got the faintest / foggiest.

Who made the first telescope in the world?

  • You've got me there.
  • You've stumped me there.
  • I'm a bit stymied there.

The expression 'You've stumped me' or 'I'm stumped' derives from the game of cricket, where if the batsman is stumped, he is out and his innings is over.

We can also use get in this question to mean 'Do you understand?':

  • Do you get what I'm saying?

Or if you don't understand something you can say:

  • I don't get it.

In the Bible, which is the second book of the Old Testament?

  • Sorry, that's beyond me.
  • That's beyond my ken.
  • Sorry, my mind's gone blank.

If something is beyond your ken, you do not have sufficient knowledge to be able to understand it. Ken is much used in informal Scottish English as both a verb and a noun for know and knowledge. But if your mind goes blank, this suggests that you do know the answer which might even be on the tip of your tongue, but it is not immediately available.

In music, what is the sixth note in the tonic sol-fa scale?

  • I'm not with you.
  • Come again.
  • Search me.

These last two synonyms for I don't understand are more colloquial and not quite in the same politeness register as the earlier alternatives. However, they are quite acceptable in discourse among friends. The idea of the last one is that if you did a body search on me, you would not find the answer to the questions you have asked.

If you do know the answers to all these questions, please write to our board and tell us. A score of 100% would suggest that you might be a suitable candidate for a TV quiz game!


I do understand!

Finally, let's finish on a more positive note with some synonyms for I do understand! We don't seem to have as many of these!

  • I'm afraid I can't agree to you borrowing £500 from your sister.
  • I completely understand!
  • That's absolutely clear!
  • You're quite right!
  • Of course!

Absolutely is currently one of our most favoured adverbs when expressing strong agreement with something:

  • Are you going to Jim's party on Friday? ~ Absolutely!
  • Do you really want to wear that? ~ Yes, absolutely!

If you would like more practice more please visit our in the You, Me and Us part of our website.