How to Use the Italian Verbs Sapere and Conoscere

Different knowledge and different ways of knowing

Sidewalk Cafe Against Cremona Baptistery

Cristian Ricciardi/EyeEm

In common English usage, the verb "to know" covers knowing in all its forms: to know a person; to know a trivial fact; to know about something in-depth; to be aware of to have a perception of something. It is not for lack of alternatives that this word's footing is so broad in contemporary English: it's simply that, for historical reasons, the Old English knowen and knouleche came to dominate over older Latin-rooted bedfellows such as cognitus or sapiens.

In Italy, however, those Latin counterparts prevailed and came to define the world of knowledge in two main ways: conoscere, which gives rise in English to "cognition," and sapere, from which come "sage" and "sapient." And though conoscere and sapere share meanings and are also sometimes interchangeable, they took on different uses that are important to know.

Let's get the two straight.

Conoscere

Conoscere means to have thought-out knowledge of something: to be acquainted with someone, a topic, or a matter. It also means to have experienced something and to be familiar with it personally, in a deeper manner than counterpart sapere. Followed by a direct object, conoscere is used with people, locales, and subjects.

Conoscere: People

Conoscere is used with people: Whether to have met someone once or to know someone well, you use conoscere, perhaps with a qualifier.

  • Conosco Paolo molto bene. I know Paolo very well.
  • Ho conosciuto Paolo una volta. I met Paolo once.
  • Ci conosciamo di vista. We know each other only by sight.
  • Conosci un buon avvocato, per favore? Do you know a good lawyer, please?
  • Conosciamo una signora che ha tredici gatti. We know a woman who has 13 cats.

Conoscere: Places

Conoscere is used with places, be it cities, countries, or restaurants.

  • Non conosciamo Bologna molto bene. We don't know Bologna very well.
  • Ho sentito parlare del ristorante Il Gufo ma non lo conosco. I have heard of the restaurant Il Gufo, but I am not familiar with it.
  • Quando ci abitavo, conoscevo molto bene New York. When I lived there, I knew New York very well.
  • Conosco i vicoli di Roma come casa mia. I know the alleyways of Rome like my home.

Conoscere: Experiences

Conoscere is used with knowledge or understanding gained from living:

  • Conosco il mondo come funziona. I know how the world works.
  • Durante la guerra l'Italia ha conosciuto la fame. During the war Italy experienced famine/got to know famine firsthand.
  • A Parigi ho avuto modo di conoscere la vita da artista. In Paris I had the opportunity to experience the life of the artist.

Conoscere: Subjects

Conoscere indicates an active, deeper knowledge of subject matter, whether academic or not. Think of the term "well versed":

  • Di questo delitto conosciamo tutti i dettagli. We know all the details of this murder.
  • Conosco i tuoi segreti. I know your secrets.
  • Conosco bene i lavori di Petrarca. I know Petrarca's work well.

Sapere

Generally, sapere means to know more superficially and less experientially. It is used for factual knowledge: being informed of something, a situation or a single fact; being aware of something being so, existing, or happening.

Sapere: Factual Knowledge

For example:

  • Sai che piove? Sì, lo so. Do you know it's raining? Yes, I am aware.
  • Cosa fai stasera? Non lo so. What are you doing tonight? I don't know.
  • Non so la risposta. I don’t know the answer.
  • Signora, sa quando arriva il treno, per favore? Do you know when the train arrives?
  • Sai in che anno è cominciata la guerra? Do you know in what year the war started?
  • So la poesia a memoria. I know the poem by heart.
  • Non so mai se sei felice o no. I never know if you are happy or not.
  • So che vestiti voglio portare per il viaggio. I know what clothes I want to take on the trip.
  • Non so cosa dirti. I don't know what to tell you.
  • Sappi che ti amo. Know that I love you.

Sapere: To Hear About or Find Out

Sapere (and fellow risapere, which means to come to find out something secondhand) also means to hear about something, to learn something or be informed of something, often used in the passato prossimo.

  • Abbiamo saputo tutti i pettegolezzi. We heard all the gossip.
  • Come lo hai saputo? How did you find out?

When you are learning of something or hearing of something, you use sapere followed by a secondary clause with di and che: to learn or know that something or to learn or know of something. In fact, sapere is often followed by che, di, come, perché, dove, quando, and quanto.

  • Ho saputo ieri sera che Paolo si è sposato. I heard last night that Paolo got married.
  • Ho risaputo che ha parlato di me. I heard that she talked about me.
  • Non sapevo che Gianna si fosse laureata. I didn't know/I hadn't learned that Gianna graduated.
  • Ho saputo della morte di tuo padre. I heard about the death of your father.
  • Non si è saputo più niente di Marco. We never heard anything more about Marco.

But you cannot use sapere for knowing a person!

Sapere: Know-How

The other very important meaning of sapere is to know how to do something: riding a bike, for example, or speaking a language. In those uses sapere is followed by the infinitive.

  • Non so sciare ma so cantare! I don’t know how to ski but I can sing!
  • Lucia sa parlare molto bene l'italiano. Lucia knows how to speak Italian well.
  • Mio nonno sa raccontare le storie come nessun altro. My grandfather knows how to tell stories better than anyone.
  • Franco non sa fare niente. France doesn't know how to do anything.

As know-how, sapere also functions as a noun—il sapere, an infinito sostantivato—and it means "knowledge."

  • Sapere leggere e scrivere è molto utile. Knowing how to read and write is very useful.
  • Il suo sapere è infinito. His knowledge is infinite.

Sapere Impersonal

In terms of general knowledge and facts, sapere is often used impersonally to mean "it is known to all" or "everyone knows."

  • Si sa che sua sorella è cattiva. Everyone knows that her sister is mean.
  • Si sapeva che andava così. Everyone knew it would end like this.
  • Non si sa che fine abbia fatto. It is not known what happened to him.

The past participle saputo (and risaputo) is also used in those impersonal constructions:

  • È saputo/risaputo da tutti che Franco ha molti debiti. It's a known fact that Franco has many debts.

The term chissà, which many of you surely have heard, comes from chi sa—literally, "Who knows?" and is used impersonally, like an adverb.

  • Chissà dov'è andato! Who knows where he went!
  • Chissà cosa succederà! Who knows what will happen!

Sapere: To Think or Opine

Particularly in Tuscany and in Central Italy, sapere is used in the present tense to opine on something; it's a mix of guess, impression, and speculation best translated in English with "surmising"—something definitely short of knowledge:

  • Mi sa che oggi piove. I surmise it's going to rain today.
  • Mi sa che Luca ha un'amante. I surmise that Luca has a lover.
  • Mi sa che questo governo non dura a lungo. I surmise that this government is not going to last long.

Sapere: To Taste Of

This seems random, but sapere di also means to have the flavor or scent of something or to taste (or not) of something (and can be used with insipid people as well):

  • Questo sugo sa di bruciato. This sauce tastes (of) burnt.
  • Questo pesce sa di mare. This fish tastes like the sea.
  • Questi vini sanno di aceto. These wines taste like vinegar.
  • Questa torta non sa di niente. This cake doesn't taste like anything.
  • Quel ragazzo non sa di niente. That boy is insipid.

Fare Sapere and Fare Conoscere

Both sapere and conoscere can be used with fare as a helping verb: fare sapere means to tell, inform, or let something be known, and fare conoscere is to introduce a person or a place to someone.

  • La mamma mi ha fatto sapere che sei malato. Mom let me know you are sick.
  • Fammi sapere se decidi di uscire. Let me know if you decide to go out.
  • Cristina mi ha fatto conoscere suo padre. Cristina introduced me to/let me meet her father.
  • Le ho fatto conoscere il mio paese. I introduced her to/showed her around my town.

Gray Areas

Are there gray areas between sapere and conoscere? Of course. And situations in which they are interchangeable, too. For example:

  • Luca conosce/sa molto bene il suo mestiere. Luca knows his job well.
  • Sai/conosci le regole del gioco. You know the rules of the game.
  • Mio figlio sa/conosce già l'alfabeto. My son already knows the alphabet.

And sometimes you can say the same thing using the two different verbs in different ways:

  • So cosa è la solitudine. I know what solitude is.
  • Conosco la solitudine. I know solitude.

Or,

  • So di avere sbagliato. I know that I was wrong.
  • Conosco/riconosco che ho sbagliato. I recognize being wrong.

By the way, the verb riconoscere—to re-know—means to recognize, both people and fact (and conoscere used to be used often in its place).

  • La conosco/riconosco dal passo. I know her/recognize her from her step.
  • Lo riconosco ma non so chi sia. I recognize him but I don't know who he is.

Practice the Concepts

Remember, generally conoscere is broader than sapere, and can even encompass it. Having difficulty choosing? If in English you are reaching for the superficial meaning of "having knowledge of something," lead with sapere; if what you mean is "being acquainted or familiar with a person" or "being well versed in something" lead with conoscere. Here are some more examples:

  • So che Luigi ha un fratello ma non lo conosco e non so come si chiama. I know that Luigi has a brother but I don't know him nor do I know his name.
  • Conosco il significato del poema ma non so le parole. I am familiar with the meaning of the poem, but I don't know the words.
  • So di Lucia ma non l'ho mai conosciuta. I have heard of Lucia but I do not know her.
  • Conosco bene il padrone del ristorante ma non so dove abita. I know the owner of the restaurant very well, but I don't know where he lives.
  • So parlare l'italiano ma non conosco bene la grammatica. I know how to speak Italian but I am not well versed in the grammar.
  • Sapete dove ci dobbiamo incontrare? Sì, ma non conosciamo il posto. Do you know where we are supposed to meet? Yes, but we are not familiar with the place.
  • Chi è quel ragazzo, lo sai? Lo conosci? Who is that guy, do you know? Do you know him?
  • Luca conosce tutti e sa tutto. Luca knows everyone and knows everything.