The French verb savoir is one of the most common French verbs, making it an important one to learn. Both in conjugation and in meaning, this verb can throw some curve balls, but with the tips below you'll be using the verb in all kinds of phrases in no time.
Definition of the French Verb Savoir
The French verb savoir simply means 'to know'; however, because French has another word that also means 'to know' (connaître-meaning to 'know' someone-be familiar, have met them), sorting out when to use savoir can be a bit tricky. In general, savoir has a concrete meaning:
- Je sais qu'il va réussir-I know that he will succeed.
- Je sais qu'elle a déjà fini-I know that she already finished.
- Elle sait que je suis content-She knows that I am happy.
In all the concrete cases above, one can see that in French one knows something, and the relative pronoun 'that' is not optional, but required in French. In all concrete instances of knowing something, savoir que is the right expression. Of course, the uses of this French verb do not stop here, and the particularities of the verb are many.
Savoir is also commonly used to express what one can do:
- Je sais lire-I know how to read.
- ''Je sais nager-I know how to swim.
- Present participle: sachant
- Past participle: su
- Auxiliary Verb: avoir
In the conditional tense, the verb savoir takes on a different meaning than simply to know something. Expressions like sauriez-vous… are a polite way of asking if someone is able to do something. For example, one might ask a favor this way: sauriez-vous m'expliquer tout cela encore une fois? (Are you able to tell me that whole story once more?). In addition, one could ask a question of someone that might have a slightly negative connotation if the verb savoir were not used: saurais-tu rentrer tout seul? (are you able to make it home alone?). In this example, instead of making a sort of judgment (e.g. 'I'm not sure you're in any condition to make it home'), the question becomes more polite.Yet another meaning of the verb savoir appears in the past tense (j'ai su/nous avons su, etc.); the verb savoir takes on a meaning closer to 'discovering something' or 'realizing something'. For example, one might say, en ce moment-là j'ai su qu'il ne m'avait jamais aimé (at that moment I realized that he had never loved me).
In the past tenses, savoir uses different tenses for the different meanings: if the action was sudden (discovering, realizing at a certain moment), the auxiliary avoir plus the past participle su are used. If you are talking about a prior state of knowing, the imperfect savais/savait/savions/saviez/savaient is used.
- J'ai su qu'il m'aimait-I realized/discovered that he loved me.
- Je savais qu'il m'aimait-I knew that he loved me.
Expressions with Savoir
This French verb is used in several common expressions, and in some famous quotes:
- Savoir par cœur n'est pas savoir-Knowing by heart is not knowledge/knowing. (Montaigne)
- Je n'en sais rien-I have no idea.
- Savoir-vivre-Knowing how to live
- Si j'avais su-If only I had known.
- On sait jamais-You never know.
- Difficile à savoir-Difficult/impossible to know
- Que sais-je?-What do I know?
Because this verb is so common, it's worth learning all of its particularities. Once you start using it, and the more French you hear on a daily basis, the easier the verb will become.