pouvoir/savoir

What’s the difference between pouvoir and savoir?

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between the verbs pouvoir and savoir. They both talk about the ability to do something, but they are used in different contexts. Sometimes even native speakers have trouble deciding between the two due to regional variation; in Belgium, for example, they use savoir much more often than pouvoir. Read on to learn when to use pouvoir and when to use savoir, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Paul travaille au garage avec son père le week-end.

À 14 ans, il sait déjà réparer une voiture ! Il peut aussi porter des pneus très lourds.

pouvoir vs. savoir

When pouvoir and savoir are followed by an infinitive, they express the idea of being able to do something. It is the origin of this ability that helps us choose between these two verbs. If the ability is innate, use pouvoir; if the ability is learned, use savoir.

pouvoir

The verb pouvoir translates to be able to. It is used with an infinitive. Pouvoir expresses the idea of being able to do something because of an innate physical or mental quality or because the situation permits it, i.e., we have the time, the strength, the availability, etc.

Examples:
J’ai du temps cet après-midi, je peux t’aider à ranger l’appartement.I have time this afternoon, I can help you tidy the flat.

the situation permits it

Le guépard peut atteindre une vitesse de 110 km/h.A cheetah can reach speeds of up to 110 km/h.

physical characteristic

Hugo peut méditer pendant plusieurs heures.Hugo can meditate for several hours.

he has the necessary concentration/the situation allows him to meditate for so long

Madame Dureux est malade, elle ne peut pas aller travailler aujourd’hui.Madame Dureux is sick, she can’t go to work.

the situation/her physical condition doesn’t allow her to work

In questions and negative sentences, pouvoir can also be synonymous with avoir le droit debe allowed to. In questions, pouvoir asks for permission. In negative sentences, it expresses that something is not allowed.

Examples:
Papa, est-ce que je peux aller au cinéma avec des amis ce soir ?Papa, can I go to the cinema tonight with some friends?
Vous ne pouvez pas vous garer ici, c’est interdit.You can’t park here, it’s forbidden.

savoir

The verb savoir is also similar to the English verb be able to, and sometimes to the verb know or more specifically know how. We use savoir to talk about learned abilities; a person is capable of doing something because they have learned to do it.

Examples:
Je sais parler allemand.I can speak German.

I learned this language

Est-ce que tu sais nager ?Do you know how to swim?

have you learned how to swim?

Grand-père Ulysse sait reconnaître le chant des oiseaux.Grandpa Ulysse can recognise different bird songs.

he learned how to recognise different bird calls

Regional variation with pouvoir and savoir

In Belgium and certain areas in the north of France, they use the verb savoir instead of the verb pouvoir to express an ability that is situation dependent or related to a physical or mental ability.

Example:
Est-ce que tu sais me donner le sel ?Can you pass me the salt?

In other regions in France, they would say: Est-ce que tu peux me donner le sel ?

Find out the conjugations of pouvoir and savoir by going to our French Verbs Conjugator and learn more about the verb savoir with our page on the difference between savoir and connaître.