I Know, Right? The French Know-it-all’s Guide to Savoir vs. Connaître
Pssst, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
You know those people who say “you know?” at the end of every sentence?
I’m one of those people.
There are times when I’ll even say “you know what I mean?”
I know, I know. I can’t help it!
Occasionally, I’ll come across a person who responds, “No, I do not know what you mean,” with a deadpan expression, but for the most part I’m able to get away with this verbal quirk of asking a question that isn’t really a question with little pushback.
So imagine my delight when I learned that French has not just one but two verbs that mean “to know”: savoir and connaître.
If you want to make your French sound fluent, or at least pretty bomb.com, getting to know the subtle, non-obvious differences between words is an absolute must.
By mastering the use of these two verbs, you’ll allow your French speaking to flourish. You’ll be able to talk about what you know, who you know, your abilities, what you’ve found out…the list goes on. Not to mention, there are lots of common expressions that allow you to further your usage of both words in conversation.
Your writing and reading comprehension will improve, too.
Know what I mean?
If not, you will soon!
The various uses of savoir
Savoir, which means “to know,” has two connotations in the present tense and one in the perfect past tense. Here they are.
1. To know how to do something
In this case, the conjugated form of savoir is followed by the infinitive of the verb that describes what it is that one can do.
Je sais nager. (I know how to swim.)
Marie sait conduire. (Marie knows how to drive.)
2. To have knowledge of (regarding a situation, a state of being, a state of affairs)
In this case, savoir is used in conjunction with a subordinate clause. Quick grammar refresher: a subordinate clause is a clause that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it does not express a complete thought.
Je sais où tu habites. (I know where you live.)
Je ne sais pas quand la fête commence. (I don’t know when the party starts.)
3. In the passé composé (perfect past), meaning “to find out” or “to learn”
J’ai su qu’il a menti. (I found out that he lied.)
The various uses of connaître
Connaître, which also means “to know,” also has two connotations in the present tense and one in the perfect past tense. Let’s go through them one by one.
1. To know a person personally
Je connais Michel. (I know Michel.)
Marie et Paul connaissent Martine. (Marie and Paul know Martine.)
2. To be familiar with a person, place or thing
Je connais Paris. (I am familiar with Paris.)
This is understood to mean “I have been to Paris.”
Je connais ce film. (I am familiar with this film.)
Likewise, this is understood to mean “I have seen this film.”
3. In the passé composé, meaning “to meet (for the first time)” or “to become acquainted with”
J’ai connu Michel à Paris. (I met Michel in Paris.)
Another thing you need to know (see what I did there?) is that connaître cannot be followed by a clause or the infinitive form of a verb. Rather, connaître is used with a direct object.
Either/or: savoir or connaître
In French, there are certain cases in which the choice between savoir or connaître is up to you. Talk about a good deal! There are two instances where this is the case.
1. If you’re talking about knowing (or having) a piece of information
Je sais son adresse and Je connais son adresse both mean “I know his/her address.”
Nous savons déjà sa réponse and Nous connaissons déjà sa réponse both mean “We already know his answer.”
2. If you’re talking about knowing something by heart (having it memorized)
Elle sait cette chanson par cœur and Elle connaît cette chanson par cœur both mean “She knows this song by heart.”
A note about the negative: Using the verbs savoir and connaître in negative constructions is nothing fancy—ne pas savoir or ne pas connaître are sufficient.
Depending on the context, however, the verb ignorer, which is “to not know” as in “to be unaware of” can be used instead to take things to the next level:
Je ne parle pas des choses que j’ignore. (I don’t talk about things that I’m unaware of.)
Common expressions with savoir
There are several French expressions and turns of phrase that contain the verb savoir. Let’s take a look, shall we?
On ne sait jamais (you never know)
This optimistic expression is used to convey the possibility that something good might happen, even if it is slight.
— Je ne gagnerai jamais au loto. (I will never win the lottery.)
— On ne sait jamais. (You never know.)
Qui sait (who knows) ?
Sometimes people do things that cannot be explained and sometimes things happen for no reason. This expression is a great response when someone asks you “why?” nonetheless.
Va savoir (who knows)
Like the preceding expression, this one also means “who knows.” This rhetorical expression is used in those cases where it is really impossible to know what’s up.
— À quoi pense-t-elle ? (What is she thinking about?)
— Va savoir. (Who knows?)
Sans le savoir (without knowing [it])
This expression is used to convey an inadvertence.
Marie a mangé le gâteau entier sans le savoir. (Marie ate the entire cake without knowing it.)
Savoir bien (to be well aware of [something])
You’ll often see or hear Je sais bien. Use this phrase in those moments when you feel like everyone around you is telling you what to do or giving you unsolicited advice and you just want them to shut up (pardon my French).
— Tu dois te laver les mains avant de manger. (You have to wash your hands before eating.)
— Je sais bien. (I’m well aware.)
Tu sais quoi (you know what) ?
This casual expression is great to use right before telling a story or an anecdote, or before sharing unsolicited information.
— Tu sais quoi ? (You know what?)
— Quoi ? (What?)
— Je pense que je vais me teindre les cheveux. (I think I’m going to dye my hair.)
Croire tout savoir (to believe/think one knows everything)
We all have know-it-alls in our lives. Use this expression to describe (or vent about) them.
Caroline est fatigante. Elle croit tout savoir. (Caroline is annoying. She thinks she knows everything.)
Common expressions with connaître
French also has quite a few expressions and turns of phrase that contain the verb connaître. Here are some worth knowing.
Connaître la célébrité (to become popular)
This expression can be used to describe anything, from a person to a restaurant, who/that has become popular.
David Foenkinos a connu la célébrité grâce à son roman “La Délicatesse.” (David Foenkinos has become popular thanks to his novel “Delicacy.“)
Connaître ses limites (to know one’s limits)
This expression is used to describe how much one can tolerate, be it alcohol or five hours of sleep.
Je connais mes limites. Je dois me coucher. (I know my limits. I have to lie down.)
Connaître la musique (to know what’s up)
This expression is used in situations when one has seen or experienced something before and/or is used to something and can therefore predict an outcome.
Je connais la musique; Charlotte va se fâcher si elle doit rester toute seule à la maison. (I’ve seen it before; Charlotte will be upset if she has to stay home all alone.)
En connaître un rayon (to be knowledgeable about a subject)
Use this expression to describe that friend of yours who is an amateur (lover) of wine and has an encyclopedic knowledge of vineyards.
Il est caviste donc il en connaît un rayon sur le vin. (He is a wine merchant so he knows a lot about wine.)
Connaître une expansion (to experience growth)
This expression is used to describe growth. The growth being referred to here is not physical growth but rather that which is related to an emotional, professional or financial situation.
Le secteur des médias connait une expansion très rapide. (The media industry is expanding very quickly.)
Connaître ses classiques (to have common references, which is to say good cultural literacy)
In the context of one’s French-learning adventure, this expression can be used when you have a good number of French cultural references (acquired through films, books and music, for example) under your belt.
Marie habite en France depuis dix ans donc elle connaît ses classiques. (Marie has lived in France for ten years so she has her classics straight.)
Getting to know savoir and connaître even better
If you feel your skills in distinguishing between savoir and connaître are still lacking, here are a couple of ways you can work on them.
- Listen. Listening to French radio shows in the form of podcasts is great for French learners of all stripes, and especially advanced learners. Resources like this can attune your ears to the differences between verbs like savoir and connaître, whose connotations may vary according to context. A show like “La Tête au Carré,” which explains cutting-edge scientific research in layman’s terms, is great for this. You dig?
- Quiz yourself. Getting to know savoir and connaître is all about practice. Quizzes are a great way to see if you can make out the difference on the fly. I recommend this one and this one to get things started.
You know what? I think that just about covers it!