How to Use the Italian Verbs 'Sapere' and 'Conoscere'

Sidewalk Cafe Against Cremona Baptistery

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“I know how to play the piano” and “I know him.”

While the main verb “to know” in those two phrases doesn’t differ in English, it does in Italian.

In fact, the two verbs you would use would be either “sapere” or “conoscere.” Both mean "to know," but have different implications.

Sapere means "to know” in the sense of "to be able to," or "to know how to." It can also be understood as knowing about a situation or a fact, like “Non sapevo che tu fossi qui. - I didn’t know that you were here.”

Conoscere, on the other hand, means “to know” in the sense of “to know someone” or “to know an area, town, restaurant, etc.

Examples With Sapere in the Present Tense

  • Non so sciare. - I don’t know how to ski.
  • So cantare. - I know how to sing. / I am able to sing.
  • Non lo so. - I don’t know.
  • Non so la risposta giusta. - I don’t know the right answer.
  • Lei sa quando il treno arriva? - Do you know when the train arrives? (formal)
  • So la lezione. - I know the lesson.

TIP: The last example could also be used with the verb conoscere: “Conosco la lezione. - I prepared for today’s lesson.”

Using Sapere in Other Tenses

  • (Il condizionale) Credo di sì, ma...non saprei. - I believe so, but...I wouldn’t know.
  • (L’imperfetto) Sapevi che Marco frequenta qualcuno? - Did you know that Marco is dating someone?
  • (L’imperfetto) Non sapevo che tu volessi imparare l’italiano! - I didn’t know that you wanted to learn Italian!

TIP: If you want to say something like “I’m able to speak Italian,” you would use the verb “riuscire” instead. For example, “Riesco a parlare bene Italiano. - I’m able to speak Italian well.”

Examples of the Verb Conoscere in the Present Tense

  • Non conosciamo Bologna molto bene. - We don't know Bologna very well. / We aren’t very familiar with Bologna.
  • Il ristorante si chiama L’archetto? Mhh, non lo conosco. - The restaurant is called L’archetto? Hmm, I don’t know it.
  • Quel film con Hugh Grant? Quello in cui conosce un’attrice e si innamorano? - Do you know that Hugh Grant movie? The one where he meets that actress and they fall in love?

Conoscere in Other Tenses

  • (Il passato prossimo) Ho conosciuto Francesca a casa di Giuseppe. - I met Francesca at Giuseppe's house.
  • (Il passato prossimo) Li Abbiamo conosciuti tre anni fa. - We met them three years ago.
  • (L'imperfetto) Da bambino conoscevo bene New York, ma tutto era cambiato da quel periodo. - When I was a kid, I knew New York well, but everything has changed since that time.

TIP: Unlike the verb “conoscere,” which means the same thing when conjugated in the present, past, or imperfect tenses, the meaning of “sapere” changes when in the passato prossimo form. For example, when you say “Ieri sera ho saputo che lei viene qua. - Last night I found out that she’s coming here.” So, you could define “sapere” in the past tense as “to find out.”