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When to Use Savoir vs. Connaître to Say “I Know” in French

What do German words kennen and wissen, Spanish words ​​saber and conocer, and French words savoir and connaître have in common? They all mean “to know”. Indeed, when you translate “know” into different languages, there are often two different verbs, with slightly different meanings. While it may seem confusing at first glance, you’ll quickly discover when to use savoir vs. connaître in French, depending on the context.

The difference between savoir vs. connaître

When we first learn the difference between savoir and connaître, we are usually given a very basic explanation:

“Savoir quelque chose” means “to know something” and “connaître quelqu’un ou quelque chose” means “to know someone or something”.

Although it might be a good starting point, it is an oversimplification; it correctly shows that we cannot use savoir to talk about knowing people, but leaves us wondering which one to use in other contexts, for example, when talking about knowledge of things and facts?

Savoir meaning in French

Most dictionaries will tell you that the verb savoir means “to have knowledge of something”. In reality, it refers to an in-depth knowledge of facts, as well as expressing abilities and skills.

  • Je sais parler trois langues – I know how to speak three languages
  • Il sait la théorie du développement de Piaget, c’était le sujet de sa thèse – He knows Piaget’s Theory of Development, it was the subject of his thesis
  • Nous savons que la réunion est prévue à 14 heures – We know that the meeting is scheduled for 2 PM

Connaître meaning in French

The connaître conjugation is usually used for people, places, experiences and concepts. It indicates a personal acquaintance or experience. It can be used for less in-depth knowledge, such as if you want to say “to be familiar with”.

  • Je connais bien cette ville, j’y ai vécu pendant des années – I know this city well, I lived here for years
  • Il connaît les œuvres de Molière, mais il ne peut pas les citer – He’s familiar with the works of Molière, but he couldn’t quote them
  • Est-ce que tu connais Diane ? Elle est nouvelle ici – Do you know Diane? She’s new here

The grammatical difference between savoir vs. connaître

Grammatically speaking, the verb savoir can be an intransitive verb, meaning it doesn’t need a direct object, but it can also be transitive. It is often followed by a subordinate clause or an infinitive verb. A subordinate clause is a group of words that has a subject and a verb but cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, for example que/ qui/ / quand/ pourquoi/ comment/ si.

For example, we often use “je sais que…” meaning “I know that…”

The verb connaître, on the other hand, is never followed by a verb or a subordinate clause. Instead, it is usually followed by a person, place, object or any other noun. This is because it’s a transitive verb, meaning that it requires a direct object in order for the sentence to make sense.

Here are some example sentences which show the subtle differences between savoir and connaître:

  • Je connais Elizabeth, je sais qu’elle va à l’école et qu’elle sait danser – I know Elizabeth, I know that she goes to school and that she knows how to dance.
  • Il connaît l’histoire, il sait qu’elle parle de l’amour et de l’amitié – He knows the story, he knows it’s about love and friendship
  • Nous savons que c’est interdit de tricher, nous connaissons les règles du jeu – We know it’s forbidden to cheat, we know the rules of the game

Savoir vs. connaître examples

The best way to fully comprehend the difference between two very similar verbs is to practice using them and to see them used in context. Here are some example sentences to help you understand the different uses of each verb.

Savoir examples

  • Elle sait cuisiner de délicieux plats – She knows how to cook delicious dishes
  • Est-ce que tu sais nager ? – Do you know how to swim?
  • Un bon artiste sait comment dépeindre les émotions sans montrer les expressions du visage – A good artist knows how to depict emotion without showing facial expressions
  • Ils savent comment résoudre ce problème complexe – They know how to solve this complex problem

Connaître examples

  • Ils ne connaissent pas grand-chose sur l’histoire de ce pays – They don’t know much about the history of this country
  • Vous connaissez le Québec car vous y avez séjourné lors de voyages d’affaires – You’re familiar with Quebec because you’ve been there on business trips
  • Elle connaît le directeur de l’entreprise, ils ont travaillé ensemble auparavant – She knows the company’s director, they’ve worked together before
  • Nous connaissons tous les recoins de la région, nous y avons voyagé souvent – We know every corner of the region, we’ve travelled there often

Savoir vs. connaître conjugation

Savoir and connaître are both verbs in the third verb group that conjugate with the auxiliary avoir. The third verb group is made up of all the verbs that don’t belong to either of the first two groups. They are generally irregular verbs, and can be split into subgroups according to the form of their infinitive:

In the case of savoir, it fits into the subgroup of verbs that end in -oir, while connaître is part of the verbs that end in -re.

Past participle

The past participle of savoir is “su”, while the past participle of connaître is “connu”. Here are a few examples of their use in past tense conjugations:

  • Je l’ai connue quand elle était bébé – I knew her when she was a baby
  • Ils ont connu le village pendant la guerre, mais n’y sont pas retournés depuis – They knew the village during the war, but haven’t been back since
  • Elle a su la réponse avant qu’il n’ait fini de poser la question – She knew the answer before he had finished asking the question
  • Vous avez su la date de la répétition il y a trois semaines – You knew the date of the rehearsal three weeks ago

Reflexive verbs

Reflexive verbs are verbs where the subject of the action also receives the action, starting with “se” in the infinitive. “Se savoir” is not a frequently used reflexive verb in French, unlike “se connaître”, which is a common expression.

“Se connaître” means either “to know each other”, or “to know oneself.”

  • Je me connais, je suis conscient de mes forces et mes faiblesses – I know myself, I’m aware of my strengths and weaknesses
  • Nous nous connaissons depuis l’enfance – We’ve known each other since childhood
  • Ils se connaissent déjà – They already know each other
  • Elle pense se connaître, mais elle a encore beaucoup à apprendre – She thinks she knows herself, but she still has a lot to learn

To learn more about the conjugation of the two verbs, check out our dedicated articles on savoir conjugation and connaître conjugation.

Can we use savoir vs. connaître interchangeably?

The French verbs “savoir” and “connaître” are generally not used interchangeably because they have distinct meanings and are used in different contexts. However, there are certain situations where they can overlap to some extent. Here are a few scenarios where they can both be used, although upon closer inspection you will see that there are subtle differences when each verb is used.

Familiarity with information or facts

In some cases, when discussing information or facts that someone is familiar with, both verbs can be used. However, “savoir” would emphasise knowing the information as a fact, while “connaître” would emphasise being familiar with it through personal experience.

  • Je connais cette chanson – I know this song
  • Je sais cette chanson – I know this song

Here, both verbs can work, with “savoir” emphasising the in-depth knowledge of the song’s lyrics and “connaître” emphasising familiarity with the song due to having heard it before.

  • Il connaît le droit de la propriété intellectuelle – He knows intellectual property law
  • Il sait le droit de la propriété intellectuelle – He knows intellectual property law

The former sentence indicates that the subject is familiar with this kind of law, while the second person has extensive knowledge of the subject.

  • Nous connaissons l’heure de départ du vol – We know the flight departure time
  • Nous savons l’heure de départ du vol – We know the flight departure time

Using “connaître” here is a way of saying that we are aware of the flight time, while using “savoir” emphasises that we know this information as fact.

Names and concepts

When talking about knowing the names of people, places, or concepts, both verbs can sometimes be used interchangeably. However, “connaître” would imply a more personal acquaintance with the name or concept.

  • Tu connais le nom de cet auteur – You know the name of this author
  • Tu sais le nom de cet auteur – You know the name of this author

Both verbs can work here, but “connais” emphasises familiarity with the author’s name, without much further knowledge of them, yet “savoir” shows you have memorized their name or may have studied them in more detail.

  • Je connais le bonheur – I know happiness
  • Je sais le bonheur – I know happiness

These two French sentences have slightly different nuances in meaning. The former implies that the speaker has experienced or is familiar with the feeling or concept of happiness. It suggests a personal connection to or experience of the emotion. The second sentence, on the other hand, implies a more factual or intellectual understanding of the concept of happiness, without necessarily implying personal experience.

  • Elle ne connaît pas la différence entre le bien et le mal – She doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong
  • Elle ne sait pas la différence entre le bien et le mal – She doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong

Both phrases express an inability to distinguish right from wrong. However, “ne connaît pas” generally refers to a conceptual understanding, the intellectual recognition of the distinction. In contrast, “ne sait pas” tends to indicate an absence of practical knowledge or concrete experience for making moral decisions.

Savoir vs. connaître – conclusion

To conclude, The French verbs savoir and connaître both mean “to know”, but they are used in different contexts. Savoir is used for acquired knowledge and knowing something by heart. In these cases it’s often followed by pronouns such as où, pourquoi, qui, etc. It can also be used to talk about abilities meaning “to know how to” and in this case it is followed by an infinitive verb. Conversely, connaître, which is followed by a noun, is used for knowing people, places, and having personal familiarity with something.

Challenge yourself with Clozemaster

Learning the difference between savoir and connaître might seem daunting at first, but don’t worry, it comes naturally with practice.

Test your skills and see what you’ve learned from this article by playing a selection of sentences with forms of the verbs savoir and connaître.

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