Sapere or Potere: Don’t mix them up again! 

In Italian, ‘potere‘ is more commonly used to express possibility or permission, but NOT skill or ability. To express the skill or ability to do something, the verb ‘sapere’ is used, which means ‘to know how to.’ 

For example, ‘so nuotare’ translates to ‘I can swim’ in English, but it literally means ‘I know how to swim,’ indicating the speaker’s ability or skill in swimming. On the other hand, ‘potere’ is more used for possibility or permission. 

For instance, ‘Posso uscire?’ means ‘May I go out?’ or ‘Can I go out?’ in the sense of asking for permission.

Potere → to have possibility or the permission (or not) of doing something

Io posso parlare italiano“I’m allowed to speak Italian” or in a question “Can I speak Italian”?
Perché non puoi venire stasera?“Why can’t you come tonight?”
Posso cantare“I’m allowed to sing” or in a question “Can I sing?”
use of ‘potere’ in Italian

Sapere → to have the skill or ability (or not) of doing something 

Io so parlare italiano“I can speak Italian” or “I know how to speak Italian”
Sai sciare?“Can you ski?” or “Do you know how to ski?
Non sappiamo cantare“We can’t sing” or “We don’t know how to sing”
I bambini sanno suonare il piano“The children can play the piano” or “The children know how to play the piano”
use of ‘sapere’ in Italian

CAREFUL

Avoid the common mistake of using ‘potere’ in sentences that inquire about someone’s ability to do something. When you ask someone ‘Puoi cucinare?’ you are actually asking them if they are able to cook right now, not if they have the general skill of cooking.

  • Puoi cucinare? – Can you cook? – (I want you to cook) 
  • Sai cucinare? – Can you cook? – (Do you know how to cook?, Can you cook?)

Sapere is used to indicate knowledge or ability in people or animals, but not for objects. For objects, we use potere to describe capability or function.

Example:  This car can go fast → La macchina può sa andare veloce. 

Exercise

Determine if ‘can’ expresses permission, possibility, or skill, and then translate it correctly into English, using either ‘sapere’ or ‘conoscere’.

  1. I can dance.
  2. Can you call me tomorrow? 
  3. Marco can make delicious cookies.
  4. I can’t go to the park on Sunday. 
  5. Can you repeat? 
  6. I can’t ride a bike.
  7. Can you drive? (you singular)
  8. Can you speak Italian? (you singular)
  9. I can’t come tonight.
  10. We can’t dance.
  11. I can’t speak Russian
  12. I can’t find my keys 
  13. She can play the guitar. 
  14.  The app can help you learn a new language.
  15. The teacher can answer your questions.
  16.  Carla can draw very well.
  17. We can play tennis.
  18. The bird can fly.
  19. This phone can take photos.
  20. The baby can clap hands.
  21. Our car can go fast.

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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