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“Pouvoir” Conjugation: Learn How to Use the French Verb “Pouvoir”

The French verb pouvoir means “to be able to”, or in other words, it means “can”. It’s a very common verb so it’s one that you ought to get to grips with as soon as possible. However, just like many of the other most frequently used French verbs, it’s irregular. That means that there’s no simple rule to follow, you just have to learn how to conjugate it. It’s not only important to know how to use this verb, but also when to use it, but don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! We’re going to look at the pouvoir conjugation in various tenses and the many ways that you can use this vital verb.

When to use the verb POUVOIR

First and foremost, let’s look at the different reasons why we might employ the pouvoir verb.

1. To show capability/ability (can/be able to)

  • Je peux courir 5 km en 20 minutes – I can run 5 km in 20 minutes

2. To show or propose a possibility (can)

  • Je peux aller à pied ou en voiture – I can go by foot or by car
  • Je peux te ramener chez toi, si tu veux – I can take you home, if you want?

3. To ask and give permission (can/may)

  • Est-ce que je peux manger le dernier cookie ? – Can I eat the last cookie?
  • Vous pouvez utiliser mon portable – You can use my cellphone

Pouvoir Conjugation in the Present Tense (le présent)

Je peux I can
Tu peux You can
Il/elle peut He/she/it can
Nous pouvons We can
Vous pouvez You can (formal/plural)
Ils/elles peuvent They can

The verb pouvoir, when used in the present tense, is followed by an infinitive verb. Similar to the English language, when responding to a question which includes another verb, the response doesn’t need to repeat the verb (e.g. can you dance? Yes I can.)

  • Je peux manger le gâteau entier tout seul – I can eat the whole cake on my own
  • Maman, tu peux m’aider ? – Mom, can you help me?
  • Il ne peut pas, il est occupé – He can’t, he’s busy
  • Elle peut faire 100 pompes d’affilée – She can do 100 push-ups in a row
  • Vous pouvez partir – You can leave/you may leave
  • Nous pouvons travailler toute la nuit s’il faut – We can work all night if we have to

Pouvoir Conjugation in the Imperfect Tense (l’imparfait)

The French imparfait is a past tense that is used to show that something was happening in the past, but not at a specific time or with an end date. It can also show that something happened regularly in the past, or was ongoing.

The pouvoir conjugation in the imperfect tense is actually quite simple: each verb has a stem, in this case it’s pou-, and you add the same endings to each and every verb stem.

Je pouvais I could
Tu pouvais You could
Il/elle pouvait He/she could
Nous pouvions We could
Vous pouviez You could (formal/plural)
Ils/elles pouvaient They could
  • Je pouvais danser toute la nuit quand j’étais jeune – I could dance all night when I was young
  • Elle était souvent privée de sortie donc elle ne pouvait pas sortir – She was often grounded so she couldn’t go out
  • Ils pouvaient faire le relais 4×100 mètres en 48 seconds – They could do the 4x100m relay in 48 seconds

Past Tense Pouvoir Conjugation (le passé composé)

Unlike the imperfect, the French passé composé is used to say that something happened at a specific moment in time, or to show that an action is complete. It is formed by conjugating the verb avoir in the present tense, then adding the past participle of the verb, which in this case is pu.

When using the verb pouvoir in the present perfect, it means “was/were able to”, or managed to/succeeded to.

J’ai pu I was able to
Tu as pu You were able to
Il/elle a pu He/she was able to
Nous avons pu We were able to
Vous avez pu You were able to (formal/plural)
Ils/elles ont pu They were able to
  • Je suis en avance parce que j’ai pu prendre le bus à 8h – I’m early because I was able to take the bus at 8am
  • Nous avons pu acheter la maison en négociant le prix – We were able to buy the house by negotiating the price
  • Vous avez pu rendre vos devoirs à l’heure ? – Were you able to hand your homework in on time?

You may have noticed that the meaning of these sentences could also be translated to “managed to” or “succeeded to”. For example, the last sentence sounds very formal in English, so instead we might say “Did you manage to hand your homework in on time?”

Pouvoir Conjugation in the Pluperfect (le plus-que-parfait)

Now that we’ve seen the pouvoir passé composé, we can take it up a level by looking at another compound tense: the plus-que-parfait. This tense is used to talk about an action that happened before another action in the past.

It is formed by conjugating the verb avoir in the imperfect tense, and then adding the past particle pu. It is always paired with another tense, either the passé composé or the imparfait.

J’avais pu I had been able to/could have
Tu avais pu You had been able to/could have
Il/elle avait pu He/she had been able to/could have
Nous avions pu We had been able to/could have
Vous aviez pu You had been able to/could have (formal/plural)
Ils/elles avaient pu They had been able to/could have
  • Il était parti, mais il n’avait pas pu terminer toutes les tâches avant – He had left, but he hadn’t been able to finish all the tasks beforehand
  • Le cours n’avait pas été enregistré, heureusement ils avaient pu prendre des notes – The lesson hadn’t been saved, fortunately they had been able to take notes
  • Grâce aux appels vidéos, j’ai pu parler avec ma fille plus que j’avais pu dans les années précédentes – Thanks to video calls, I was able to speak to my daughter more than I had been able to in previous years

This tense is often used with “if only” and the conditional tense:

  • Si tu avais pu, tu aurais fait – If you could have, you would have
  • Si j’avais pu, je les aurais invités – If I could have, I would have invited them
  • Si seulement j’avais pu l’arrêter – If only I could’ve stopped him
  • Si seulement ils aviez pu se marier avant la guerre – If only they had been able to get married before the war

Pouvoir conjugation in Futur Simple

The futur simple is used to talk about any moment in the future, just like the English “will”.

The pouvoir conjugation in this tense is formed by taking the future stem pourr- and adding the future endings.

Je pourrai I will be able to
Tu pourras You will be able to
Il/elle pourra He/she will be able to
Nous pourrons We will be able to
Vous pourrez You will be able to (formal/plural)
Ils/elles pourront They will be able to
  • Je pourrai être là à 18h – I can be there at 6pm
  • Tu pourras venir chez moi le week-end prochain – You can come to my house next weekend
  • Elles pourront réussir l’examen avec un peu plus d’effort – They will be able to pass the exam with a little more effort
  • Il pourra parler avant son premier anniversaire – He’ll be able to speak before his first birthday

Don’t forget that in English we often use the present to talk about the near future, which is why some of the examples use “can”, while others use “will be able to”.

Pouvoir in Subjonctif Présent

Finally, we’re going to take a quick look at the pouvoir conjugation in the dreaded subjunctive. This tense is used after certain verbs, for example verbs showing want/desire, doubt and emotions, among other things.

This tense is introduced by que, which can sometimes be a helpful reminder that you need to use the subjunctive.

que je puisse I can
que tu puisses You can
qu’il/elle/on puisse He/she/it can
que nous puissions We can
que vous puissiez You can (formal/plural)
qu’ils/elles puissent They can
  • Il est douteux qu’il puisse conduire à son âge – It’s doubtful that he can drive at his age
  • Je crains qu’on puisse avoir des problèmes – I fear that we may have problems
  • C’est triste que nous ne puissions pas y aller – It’s sad that we can’t go there
  • Elle souhaite que tout puisse s’arrêter maintenant – She wishes everything could stop now

The most common use of the subjonctif présent is when we tell someone that they MUST do something using il faut que:

  • Il faut que vous puissiez faire les calculs dans ta tête pour être comptable – You must be able to do the sums in your head to be an accountant
  • Il faut qu’elles puissent dormir confortablement – They must be able to sleep comfortably

Important Things to Know about Pouvoir

There are a couple of very important things to know about the verb pouvoir.

Firstly, in one of the weirdest rules in the French language, when the subject je follows the verb pouvoir in the present tense, it changes the verb completely! It instead becomes puis. This is for euphonic reasons – it makes it more pleasing to the ear and easier to pronounce.

As a result, when inverting the words to form a question, instead of peux-je we must say puis-je. Even more bizarrely, this is pronounced as if it were one word, like puije with a soft j.

  • Puis-je m’asseoir ici ? – Can I sit here?
  • Puis-je vous aider ? – May I help you?

Secondly, it is not only a verb, it’s also a noun! It means “power”.

  • Pouvoir gérer un pays est un grand pouvoir – To be able to run a country is a great power

Thirdly, when peut être is two separate words it means “can be”. However, when hyphenated, peut-être means “maybe”.

  • Peut-être qu’on peut être amis ? – Maybe we can be friends

Key Phrases with Pouvoir

Now that we’ve covered the pouvoir conjugaison in a range of tenses, it’s time to get familiar with the pouvoir meaning with some helpful phrases and expressions. I’ve also thrown in a few famous quotes that include pouvoir in different tenses to enhance your French a little more.

  1. Il se peut que (followed by a subjunctive verb) – It may be that…
    • Il se peut que je pars plus tôt – I may leave early (literally: it may be that I leave early)
  1. Vouloir c’est pouvoir – Where there’s a will, there’s a way

If you want to learn more about the vouloir verb, check out our post about the vouloir conjugation.

  1. Nous n’y pouvons rienThere’s nothing we can do about it

  1. Je n’en peux plusI can’t take it anymore

  2. Sauve-qui-peut Every man for himself

  1. Autant que faire se peut / tant que faire se peut – As much as possible

    • Je cuisine les plats fait-maison autant que faire se peut I make homemade meals as much as possible
  1. Ne pas pouvoir ne pas…Cannot not/cannot help but

Using a double negative often sounds unnatural, but sometimes they can be used to add emphasis.

    • Je ne peux pas ne pas manger, j’ai trop faim ! – I can’t not eat, I’m too hungry!
    • Je ne peux pas ne pas regarder, je veux savoir la suite ! – I can’t help but watch, I want to know what happens next!

Finally, here are a couple of quotes that might inspire you to continue your language learning journey:

“Ne remettez pas au lendemain ce que vous pouvez faire le jour même.”
Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Benjamin Franklin

“L’éducation est l’arme la plus puissante qu’on puisse utiliser pour changer le monde.”
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nelson Mandela

Challenge yourself with Clozemaster

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