You may know that there are two ways to say “to know” in French: you need to choose between savoir vs connaître. But how do you know which one to use? There are important differences between these two French verbs, but once you know them, you’ll choose the right one every time.
In this post, we’ll break down the different ways to use savoir vs connaître, each in a variety of tenses and situations, so that you will always choose the right way to say “I know” (or “I don’t know”) in French!
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The verb savoir in French generally means “to know information” or “to know how to do something.” We use savoir when we say the simple phrases “I know” or “I don’t know” in French, as they are generally statements used in reference to information.
- Je sais. – I know.
- Je ne sais pas. – I don’t know.
Conjugated forms of savoir commonly introduce subordinate clauses. Subordinate clauses can’t stand on their own but are imperative to the meaning of the sentence, and often begin with a relative pronoun (que, qui, dont, où, etc) or an interrogative word or phrase (à quelle heure, quand, pourquoi, comment, etc).
- Sais-tu quand il va arriver ? – Do you know when he is going to arrive?
- Je sais que tu peux le faire. – I know that you can do it.
Note that when you use savoir to say that you know how to do something, the conjugated form of savoir will be followed directly by the infinitive of the next verb. Unlike in English, you won’t say the word “how” in this sentence; it is implied in the French translation. Interestingly, this is the origin of a French term that has been adopted into English: “savoir faire,” meaning “know-how.”
- Nous savons cuisiner des crêpes. – We know how to cook crêpes.
- Je ne sais pas patiner. – I don’t know how to ice skate.
Savoir conjugation: Present tense
Now that we’ve gone over when and how to use savoir in French, let’s see the most common conjugations. Savoir is an irregular verb, meaning that it doesn’t follow typical conjugation patterns in the present tense:
|il, elle, on sait
|ils, elles savent
If you want to say “knew” in French, as in something that someone knew how to do in the past or information that someone knew in the past, you’ll need to use the imparfait. With savoir, this French past tense is much more common than the passé composé.
- Quand elle était jeune, elle savait faire du vélo. – When she was young, she knew how to ride a bike.
- Je ne savais pas que tu savais jouer si bien aux billards. – I didn’t know that you knew how to play billiards so well.
Savoir follows regular imparfait conjugation rules starting with the stem of sav- (from nous savons) and adding the regular endings:
|il, elle, on savait
|ils, elles savaient
Savoir: Passé composé
Because the passé composé refers to completed actions in the past, savoir is used to mean “found out” or “learned information for the first time.”
The past participle of savoir is su, and its auxiliary verb in the passé composé is avoir.
- J’ai su la date de la fête seulement hier. – I found out the date of the party only yesterday.
- Nous avons su le gagnant du prix la veille de la céremonie. – We learned who the prize winner was the day before the ceremony.
The verb connaître in French generally means “to know a person or place” or “to be familiar with something.” It can be used to describe when someone has knowledge of a subject or concept.
Connaître is used to ask things like “do you know this person?,” to say things like “I’m familiar with that part of town,” or to ask things like “are you familiar with the theory of relativity?”
Note that you will always need a direct object with the verb connaître. With connaître, the direct object is the person, place, or thing the subject knows.
- Vous connaissez René ? – Do you know René?
- Oui, je connais le quartier latin. – Yes, I am familiar with the Latin quarter.
- Tu connais les films de Godard ? – Are you familiar with Godard’s films?
Connaître conjugation: Present tense
Connaître is an irregular verb in the present tense:
|il, elle, on connaît
|ils, elles connaissent
In the imparfait, connaître means “to have known” or “knew” when referring to a person, a place, or a concept. It indicates that the subject knew that particular direct object for an extended period of time in the past, but probably doesn’t know it or them anymore.
- Mon père connaissait le premier minisitre quand ils étudiaient ensemble au lycée. – My dad knew the prime minister when they studied together in high school.
- Je connaissais la code Morse quand j’étais dans l’armée. – I knew Morse code when I was in the army.
Connaître follows regular imparfait conjugation rules starting with the stem of connaiss- (from nous connaissons) and adding the regular endings:
|il, elle, on connaissait
|ils, elles connaissaient
Connaître: Passé composé
When we talk about “becoming acquainted with” in the past, whether for people or for places, we use connaître in the passé composé. When talking about concepts that were known in the past, the passé composé is the better choice than the imparfait. Nonetheless, in many contexts, either tense may be suitable.
The past participle of connaître is connu, and its auxiliary verb in the passé composé is avoir.
- J’ai connu ma femme pour la première fois à l’université. – I first got to know my wife at university.
- Nous avons connu seulement deux endroits lors de notre visite en Floride: Disney World et notre hôtel. – We only got to know two places on our visit to Florida: Disney World and our hotel.
- En France, notre génération n’a jamais vraiment connu la guerre. – In France, our generation has never really known war.
Interchangeable cases: Savoir vs Connaître
There are some cases in French where the choice between connaître vs savoir is not so clear cut, and you’ll find that you can actually use either verb to express your meaning. These cases include “to know something by heart” and “to have a piece of information.”
- Elle sait / connaît le poème par cœur. – She knows the poem by heart.
- Tu sais / connais la réponse ? – Do you know the answer?
Conclusion: Savoir vs Connaître
In this post we’ve gone over the two common words for “to know” in French: savoir and connaître. Through our explanations and examples, we’ve seen the key differences between the two which relate to what sort of information is known. We also saw that their meanings change slightly when using them in the past tenses, though the contexts in which each are used still generally remain the same. Nonetheless, we ended by noting that sometimes we can use either savoir or connaître interchangeably, in contexts where someone knows some specific information.
To sum up, let’s just see the two main sets of contexts where we use savoir vs connaître:
|Uses of savoir
|Uses of connaître
|to know information
|to know a person or place
|to know how to do something
|to be familiar with something
|to know something by heart
|to know something by heart
|to know information (facts)
|to know information (facts)
So, the next time you’re bragging that you know how to play pétanque or mentioning that you know Emma Watson, be sure to use the correct French verb! Nous savons que vous êtes capables ! – We know that you’re capable!