Conoscere and Sapere: The Difference Explained

What’s the difference between “sapere” and “conoscere”? 

If you came across this page, it’s because you have been confused by using the Italian verbs sapere and conoscere. Fair enough.

English (and other languages) uses only one verb, the verb “to know,” to cover knowledge’s meaning in all possible forms.

Instead, Italian uses two different verbs: sapere and conoscere.

Sapere and conoscere are rarely interchangeable, and they express a different form of knowledge.

Let’s see now how to use the Italian verbs sapere and conoscere and what the difference between the two of them is. 

Conoscere

Conoscere means to be acquainted with something or someone: a topic, a person, a place, or a subject. It’s used with people, places or things and means having good knowledge of something or someone because you have previously experienced it.

If you are still not sure whether to use sapere or conoscere, try this:

Conoscere is always followed by a noun.

You will never see conoscere used with another verb (which instead, is likely to happen with sapere).

Examples:

ItalianEnglishContext/Type
Conosco la geografia italiana molto beneI know Italian geography very wellTopic/Subject
Conosci Luciana?Do you know Luciana?Person
Conosci un buon ristorante a Roma?Do you know a good restaurant in Roma?Place
Conosciamo molto bene la città di LuccaWe know Lucca very wellPlace
Conosci un buon dentista in città?Do you know a good dentist in town?Place
Lucia conosce la grammatica molto beneLucia knows grammar very wellTopic/Subject

Sapere 

The counterpart of “conoscere” is sapere. Sapere means to be aware of something. It means knowing a fact, an event, or a piece of information.

It’s usually used to ask for a piece of information or report it. That’s why sapere would often appear in conjunction with the chunks che / a che ora / quando / come / dove / se / perché.

For example,

ItalianEnglishContext/Type
Sai che Maria si è sposata?Do you know that Maria got married?Personal News
Sai che Marco ha avuto un bambino?Do you know that Marco had a baby?Personal News
Sai che ore sono?Do you know what time it is?Time
Sai quando parte il treno?Do you know at what time the train is leaving?Schedule/Time
Sapete dov’è Maria?Do you (guys) know where Maria is?Location
Non so come cucinare questo piatto?I don’t know how to cook this dishCooking/Procedure
Sapere as a modal verb (sapere vs. potere)

Sapere is also used as a modal verb when an infinitive verb accompanies it. In this case, it is used to say that you know how to do something, that you have an ability or a skill.

  • So parlare molto bene italiano, ma non so cucinare – I can speak Italian, but I can’t cook!
  • Sai suonare la chitarra? – Can you play the guitar?
  • Sai nuotare? – Can you swim?

As you can see from the examples, English uses the verb “can” in these types of sentences, which often leads native English speakers to use the verb “potere” when they translate into Italian. This is wrong. Saying puoi parlare has a different meaning from sai parlare. 

Let’s have a look at it

Puoi parlare in Italiano?Can you speak in Italian?Request
Sai parlare italiano?Do you speak Italian?Inquiry
Puoi cucinare?Can you cook?Request
Sai cucinare?Do you know how to cook?Inquiry
Comparison between sapere and conoscere

More uses of sapere 

Sapere also covers other meanings in Italian colloquial expressions. 

You can use sapere to:

  • tell the taste of something with the expression “sapere di” 
  • tell an opinion with the expression “mi sa che…” 

Sapere di…

  • Questo drink non sa di niente – this drink tastes like nothing
  • Questo dolce sa di cannella – this cake tastes like cinnamon 

Mi sa che…

  • Mi sa che rimango a casa stasera – I think I’ll stay home tonight
  • Mi sa che non cucino oggi, sono troppo stanca – I think I won’t cook today, I’m too tired.

“Mi sa” is an invariable chunk. In fact, we CAN’T use it with different pronouns.

You can practice the difference between conoscere and sapere and other difficult grammar topics with these excellent textbooks.

 

About the Author

Serena Capilli

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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Ciao, I'm Serena!

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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