Connaitre and savoir: two French verbs that mean almost the same thing, and often trip up beginning students. If the difference isn’t clear to you, or you just need a refresher, French tutor Carol Beth L. is here to explain it all…
You know the moon is made of green cheese (or not). You know the Bermuda Triangle is a fluke (or not?). You know your presidents backwards and forwards. You know your favorite movie forwards and backwards. You know your best friend like the palm of your hand – or do you? And how do you describe what know you know – or how you know – in French?
Like its distinction between its second-person pronouns “tu” and “vous,” French also makes a distinction between two different ways in which the speaker might know something through its two verbs “savoir” and “connaître.” “Savoir” is used for facts and information – statistically verifiable types of things. For example:
I know that Paris is in France. Je sais que Paris se trouve en France.
I know that two and two is four. Je sais que deux et deux font quatre.
I know that Antoine is is not far away. Je sais qu’Antoine n’est pas loin.
I know how to speak French. Je sais parler français.
“Connaitre” is used for familiarity; in fact, it is sometimes translated as “to be familiar with.” You might use this verb to express knowledge of or familiarity with a person or place, for example.
I know / am familiar with this building. Je connais ce batiment.
I know / am familiar with Paris. Je connais Paris.
I know / am familiar with my best friend. Je connais mon meilleur ami.
Both of these French verbs have somewhat irregular conjugation, so it is important to memorize them so you will use them correctly in context. Their conjugations have some similarities to each other, so this may make them easier for you to remember. In present tense, their conjugations are:
Je (I) connais.
Tu (you, singular) connais.
Il / Elle (He / She) connaît.
Nous (We) connaissons.
Vous (You pl.) connaissez.
Ils / Elles (They) connaisent.
Il / Elle sait.
If you think you get it, try testing yourself in the following examples to see if you can choose the right French verb for “to know.”
1) I know my sister very well. – Je (connais / sais) très bien ma soeur.
2) She knows what I am reading. – Elle (connaît / sait) ce que je lis.
3) We know that the sun is bigger than the earth. – Nous (conaissons / savons) que le soleil est plus grand que la terre.
4) They know their country well. – Ils (connaissent / savent) bien leur patrie.
5) I know this is the right place. – Je (connais / sais) que c’est le bon endroit.
6) You know how to speak five languages. – Tu (connais / sais) parler cinq langues.
7) You know your school quite well. – Vous (connaissez / savez) très bien votre école.
So how do you think you did? Check below for answers!
Normally, “connaître” is more appropriate for knowledge of (or familiarity with) people.
What the speaker is reading is (normally) a verifiable fact; he or she can show the title to the other person.
Again, this is a scientifically verifiable fact, and scientists and mathematicians have ways to calculate the size of both the earth and the sun.
A country is a place; usually, in French, one will talk about familiarity with a place.
Here, you are not stating your familiarity with a place, but the fact that this place is a specific verifiable place among others – that is, the “right” one. (The right one for what, we aren’t quite sure without more context, but that’s okay.)
Though people may disagree about what level you must be in order to count that language among your spoken languages in different situations, speaking at least a few words of a language (or more) is generally considered a verifiable fact here.
This case is similar to #4. It is, once again, a place. The subject of this sentence has probably spent a lot of time in their school, and is therefore probably pretty familiar with it.
I hope you managed to get most of them right! If not, keep practicing, and find a French-speaker or tutor who can help you check your answers. After all, practice (or as some might say, practicing correctly) makes perfect!
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
Photo by Nazareth College