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了解, 明白, and 知道 seem to be fairly synonymous in Mandarin, but there does seem to be some subtle differences between them.

What exactly is the difference? When should I use each one? Could you give me an example sentence to show when each of these terms would be the most appropriate?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

知道 means you just know something, you don't need to understand it. 了解, you understand it. 明白, you understand something, and have a clear idea of what it is about.

I think the order of them is: 知道<了解<=明白

for 了解, it can also means 'to investigate'. e.g 小白, 你去了解一下这事情怎么发生的.

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知道 = to Know, verb

了解 = to understand, verb

明白 = to be clear, adjective

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That doesn't seem exactly accurate, given things like the well-known song lyrics, "明明白白我的心“ and sentences like "他对这个题目的了解..." in which 了解 does not behave like a noun. – Terry Waltz Jan 25 '12 at 20:01
I read "明明白白我的心“ as 我的心 is 明明白白, but you are right, 了解 can be used as a noun. good call. – Laguna Jan 25 '12 at 20:28
Actually now I'm contemplating over this, I think 明白 can be used as verb too, as in 明白事理。 – Laguna Jan 25 '12 at 20:30
I've heard people asking, "你明白嗎?" to mean "do you understand?" in Taiwan. – Terry Waltz Jan 27 '12 at 3:46
lol and +1 at 明明白白我的心 in this context, @Terry Waltz =) – magnetar Jan 29 '12 at 19:51

知道 = Know

了解 = Know clearly

明白 = Know completely

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