Savoir versus Connaître

French verbs to know

Young girl scared to swim
Je ne sais pas nager." (I don't know how to swim.). Erik Isakson / Getty Images

French has two verbs which can be translated by the English verb "to know": savoir and connaître. This can be confusing to English speakers, but in fact there are distinct differences in meaning and usage for the two verbs.

Savoir has two possible uses:

1) to know how to do something - savoir is followed by an infinitive (note that the word "how" is not translated into French):

   Savez-vous conduire ?
   Do you know how to drive?

   Je ne sais pas nager.
   I don't know how to swim.

2) "to know" plus a subordinate clause:

   Je sais qu'il l'a fait.
   I know he did it.

   Je sais où il est.
   I know where he is.

In the passé composé, savoir means "to learn" or "to find out":

   J'ai su qu'il l'a fait.
   I found out that he did it.

Connaître also has two meanings:

1) to know a person

   Je connais Pierrette.
   I know Pierrette.

2) to be familiar with a person or thing

   Je connais bien Toulouse.
   I know / am familiar with Toulouse.

   Je connais cette nouvelle - je l'ai lue l'année dernière.
   I know / am familiar with this short story - I read it last year.

In the passé composé, connaître means "to meet (for the first time) / become acquainted with":

   J'ai connu Pierrette à Lyon.
   I met Pierrette in Lyon.

Note that connaître always needs a direct object; it cannot be followed by a clause or infinitive:

   Je connais son poème.
   I am familiar with his poem.

   Je connais bien ton père.
   I know your father well.

   Nous connaissons Paris.
   We know/are familiar with Paris.

   Il la connaît.
   He knows her.

Savoir or Connaître

For some meanings, either verb can be used.

1) to know (have) a piece of information:

   Je sais / connais son nom.
   I know his name.

   Nous savons / connaissons déjà sa réponse.
   We already know his response.

2) to know by heart (have memorized):

   Elle sait / connaît cette chanson par cœur.
   She knows this song by heart.

   Sais-tu / Connais-tu ton discours par cœur ?
   Do you know your speech by heart?

Ignorer is a related verb which means "not to know" in the sense of "to be unaware of." Depending on the context, it can replace either ne pas savoir or ne pas connaître.

   J'ignore quand il arrivera.
   I don't know when he is arriving.

   Il ignore Ionesco.
   He's not aware of (doesn't know about) Ionesco.

Now that you know how to know, take the test on savoir vs connaître.