Italian expression of the day: ‘Non ho capito’

Italian expression of the day: 'Non ho capito'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
This is one of the first Italian phrases most of us learn, and it will come in endlessly useful. But are you using it correctly?

Famously, capisce? means “is that clear?” or “know what I mean?”

It sounds like a conjugation of the Italian verb capire, “to understand”, but this is really American pseudo-Italian slang. The correct second-person form in Italian – “do you understand” – would be capisci.

As you probably know, in Italian you can make a conjugated verb like this into a question by simply using a questioning tone of voice. (A menacing tone is optional.)

From that same verb, capire, we also get the phrase ho capito, meaning “I get it” – and obviously, today’s phrase non ho capito means the opposite.

Literally, non ho capito translates as “I haven’t understood”.

It’s a simple phrase – but of course, there are ways to get it wrong. Let’s have a look at them.

Some people are confused by the fact that the word capito seems to be in the past tense. But in this case, word-by-word translation is unhelpful, as ho capito is the present perfect form of the verb “capire”.

Which is why you can say:

– adesso ho capito.

– I get it now.

This phrase will come in useful whatever your level of Italian and in all kinds of situations.

If you have Italian family members, you might be familiar with the kind of conversation topic which comes at you from left field, with absolutely no context, and which can change every ten seconds or so. A language-learner’s worst nightmare.

Take this common exchange between my husband and I during his family’s large and chaotic Sunday lunches:

– Cosa ha detto? Non ho capito.

– No non l’ho capito neanch’io.

– What did he say? I don’t understand.

– No I don’t understand it either.

See also: unexpected questions fired at you from nowhere which are not connected to the conversation topic.

But you should only use non ho capito in those moments when, as in this example, you didn’t catch or understand something in particular.

The rest of the time, we need to say non sto capendo.

There is a slight difference and, just as with the point of so many Italian dinner conversations, it took me a while to get it.

Non sto capendo translates literally as “I’m not understanding” and it’s for those times when you’re deeply baffled by the language or the situation – or both.

It’s not that you didn’t quite catch what someone said. You just simply can’t understand a thing that’s going on around you (a sensation that’s no doubt familiar to anyone who spends much time in Italy).

– Non ci sto capendo niente.

– I don’t understand at all.

One example of a time I might use non sto capendo is when my in-laws slip into their local dialect, which has very little to do with the Italian language. Or when three people are talking at once.

When you actually do understand, you could say capito or capisco. What’s the difference?

When used on its own, capito is the past participle of the verb capire and it just means ‘got it’ or ‘understood’. This is usually used when you agree to do something, such as following an order at work.

– Assicurati che questo sia finito.

– Capito.

– Make sure this gets finished.

– Understood.

It can be used as a question, too:

– Capito?

– Got it?

Meanwhile, capisco is the simple present form, meaning “I understand” and it’s used more to show empathy or as a kind of “I get it and I’m sorry”, depending on tone and context.

– Mi sento esausto quando devo parlare italiano tutto il giorno.

– Capisco.

– I feel exhausted when I have to speak Italian all day.

– I understand.

Hopefully, this explanation has made being confused slightly less confusing. 

– Lo capisci adesso?

– Do you get it now?

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