The Difference Between Spanish Verbs "Saber" and "Conocer"

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The Spanish verbs saber and conocer both mean "to know" in English but they are not interchangeable. There is a cardinal rule when you're translating in any language: translate meaning, not words.

The two verbs have different meanings. The Spanish verb conocer, which comes from the same root as the English words "cognition" and "recognize," generally means "to be familiar with." You would use conocer in the following ways; note it is conjugated to agree with the person and tense:

Spanish Sentence English Translation
Conozco a Pedro. I know Pedro.
¿Conoces a María? Do you know Maria?
No conozco Guadalajara. I don't know Guadalajara. Or, I haven't been to Guadalajara.
Conócete a ti mismo. Know yourself.

The most common meaning for saber is "to know a fact," "to know how" or "to possess knowledge." Following are examples of saber in a sentence:

Spanish Sentence English Translation
No sé nada. I don't know anything.
Él no sabe nadar. He doesn't know how to swim.
No sé nada de Pedro. I don't have any news about Pedro.

Secondary Meanings

Conocer also can mean "to meet," just as we use might say in English, "Pleased to meet you" upon meeting someone. Conocer can be used in the preterite past tense as well, for example, Conocí a mi esposa en Vancouver, which means, "I met my wife in Vancouver." In some contexts, it also can mean "to recognize," although there also is a verb, reconocer, that means "to recognize."

Saber can mean "to have flavor," as in sabe bien, which means "it tastes good." 

Both conocer and saber are fairly common verbs, and both are irregular verbs, meaning their conjugation patterns break from regular -er ending verbs. To differentiate , the first-person present singular of saber, from se, a reflexive pronoun, note that there is an accent.

Example Phrases

The two verbs are used commonly in idiomatic phrases.

Spanish Phrase English Translation
a saber namely
conocer al dedillo o conocer palmo a palmo to know like the palm of one's hand
conocer de vista to know by sight
cuando lo supe when I found out
dar a conocer to make known
darse a conocer to make oneself known
me sabe mal I feel bad about
no saber ni jota (o papa) de algo to not have a clue about something
no se sabe nobody knows
para que lo sepas for your information
que yo sepa as far as I know
¿Quién sabe? Who knows?
se conoce que apparently
según mi leal saber y entender to the best of my knowledge
¿Se puede saber ... ? May I ask ...?
se sabe que it is known that
vete (tú) a saber goodness knows
¡Yo que sé! or ¿Qué sé yo? I have no idea! How am I supposed to know?

Similar Meanings

As in English, there are verbs that sometimes have the same meaning, but are used differently depending on the context of the sentence. The following Spanish verbs meaning, "to be," "to look," "to have" and "to hear," can be a little tricky. Below is a guide for these commonly mistaken verbs.

Both ser and estar mean "to be." Ser is used to talk about permanent or lasting attributes. There is an acronym to help Spanish learners remember when ser is used: DOCTOR, which stands for descriptions, occupations, characteristics, time, origin and relationships. Examples include Yo soy Maria, for "I am Maria," or ​Hoy es Martes, for "Today is Tuesday."

Estar is used to express a temporary condition or location. A good mnemonic to remember estar is another acronym: PLACE, which stands for position, location, action, condition, and emotion. For example, Estamos en el cafe, means, "We are in the cafe." Or, Estoy triste, which means, "I am sad."

Mirar, Ver, and Buscar

The English verb "to look" can be expressed in most cases interchangeably by the verb mirar or ver in Spanish when you want to say "to look at" or "to watch." For instance, if you want to say, "Want to watch the game?" a Spanish speaker can say either ¿Quieres ver el partido? or ¿Quieres mirar el partido?

The verb buscar has a slightly different meaning, it is used to express the idea "to look for." For example, Estoy buscando un partido, which means, "I am looking for a game."

Haber and Tener

Both tener and haber mean "to have." Tener is used mostly as an active verb. If you "have something," you would use ​tener. Haber is mostly used as a helping verb in Spanish. For example, in English, we might say, "I have been to the grocery store." The "have" in the sentence is a helping verb.

Escuchar and Oir

Both escuchar and oir mean, "to hear," however, oir refers to the physical capacity to hear, and escuchar implies that one is paying attention or listening to a sound.