So you think you know it all.
You know your fam, your city, you know Spanish and you know how to ice-skate.
But do you know when to use saber and when to use conocer in Spanish?
Just as I thought!
You may think that they are exactly the same—after all, they mean the same thing: “to know.” So how do you know which is which? How do you choose the correct word to use?
Keep on reading to find out!
Saber vs. Conocer: A Challenge?
When you start learning Spanish and see these two cuties for the first time, they are both introduced to you as “to know.”
While this is not completely untrue, there is much more to it than just saying they both have that meaning.
You may have already survived the grammar apocalypse when you had to learn the difference between ser and estar and the weird relationship por and para have.
If you are still here though, this is going to be pan comido (a piece of cake, lit. “bread eaten”) for you.
So, why are they challenging, if at all?
The problem comes with their translation, mainly. Since they are both presented to you as meaning to know, you automatically think they are interchangeable and go on with your life, until one day, while speaking in Spanish to your friends, you say:
*No sé esta ciudad. (I don’t know this city, but incorrect.)
Your friends look at you with a weird face and say “a city is not something you can learn,” and you stare at them completely lost in translation and embarrassed.
It is time for you to avoid that forever!
Can Saber and Conocer Be Used Interchangeably?
If you want a quick answer, this would have to be “yes” and “no” at the same time.
No, I have not gone crazy.
Let me explain.
Saber and conocer can never mean the same thing in Spanish. They can, however, be used interchangeably—but only in one very specific situation, and there will still be a difference in meaning.
Even though they are synonyms, saber and conocer do not mean exactly the same thing and, as you will see later in this post, they are used for very different purposes.
Granted, they both mean “to know” in English, but they are used differently in Spanish.
There is only one situation when you can use them interchangeably and both sentences will be correct. Bear in mind this does not mean both sentences will mean the same. They will just be grammatically and semantically correct.
This situation happens when what someone wants to know about is an abstract thing such as a truth, a mystery, a reason or a secret:
Mi hermana quiere saber la verdad. (My sister wants to know the truth.)
Mi hermana quiere conocer la verdad. (My sister wants to know the truth.)
While the version with conocer tells you my sister wants to know all the facts (the truth), the version with saber tells you she wants to find out what happened, no details necessary.
I know it is a very, very subtle difference, but you will get used to it with time and a lot of practice.
So now that you know the most challenging fact about these two verbs, let’s just sit, relax and learn how and when to use them properly.
I know that you will know everything you need to know about the Spanish verbs for “to know” by the end of this post.
Conocer vs. Saber in Spanish: Know Which One to Use!
You already know saber and conocer can be a little bit of a headache at first, but there is a series of rules you can follow to always know when to use each of them.
Let’s get to it!
Saber: Translations and Uses
As we previously said, we normally translate saber as “to know” in English, but if you want to be more accurate, you should translate it as “to be able to,” “to know how to” or “to have knowledge or info about something.”
Use saber in the following situations:
1. When you are talking about people’s skills and know-how.
Do you want to boast about how many languages you can speak or how well you can play the piano? Use saber!
Whenever you need to talk about a learned ability or skill, use this verb. As you can see in the English translations, the best translation for saber in this cases is “can/be able to”:
Sé hablar español. (I can speak Spanish.)
No sé tocar la guitarra. (I can’t play the guitar.)
Mi padre sabe contar hasta 100 en chino. (My father can count to 100 in Chinese.)
2. When you are talking about or asking for information.
If you want to know when the plane lands, you happen to know the time a film starts or have/need some info about a person, use this verb.
It will normally be translated as “to know” in English:
¿Sabes a qué hora aterriza el avión? (Do you know what time the plane lands?)
No sé por qué Ana no ha venido. (I don’t know why Ana hasn’t come.)
Solo sé que la película empieza a las dos. (All I know is that the movie starts at two PM.)
¿Sabes de dónde es Pedro? (Do you know where Pedro is from?)
3. When you are talking about facts.
It does not matter if these facts are scientific, they are gossip about your favorite actor or they are just some bits of trivia to impress your friends. If you have facts, use saber.
In this case, the best way to translate saber is “to know (for a fact)”:
¿Sabes que la Luna es un satélite? (Do you know the Moon is a satellite?)
¿Sabías que Henry Cavill está soltero? (Did you know Henry Cavill is single?)
María dice que sabe cuántos granos de arena hay en el Sáhara. (María says she knows how many sand grains there are in the Sahara Desert.)
Conocer: Translations and Uses
The best way of translating conocer into English would be “to be familiar or acquainted with.”
Have a look at the situations when you should use it:
1. When you want to say you are familiar or acquainted with a person.
This is also true when you are talking about getting to know someone and meeting someone for the first time.
Translate conocer as “to know,” “to get to know” or “to meet,” in this case:
…y así es como conocí a vuestra madre. (…and that’s how I met your mother.)
¡Encantado de conocerte! (Nice to meet you!)
Conozco a John desde hace 10 años. (I have known John for 10 years.)
Quiero conocerte mejor. (I want to get to know you better.)
2. When you know (or don’t!) a place, a city, a country, etc.
Have you ever been to South America? Do you know a little bar your friends would be delighted to visit? Do you know your city like the palm of your hand? Use conocer, then!
In these situations, the best translation in English would simply be “to know (a place)” or “to have been (somewhere)”:
Conozco muy bien España (I know Spain very well.)
¿Conoces Barcelona? (Do you know Barcelona? / Have you ever been to Barcelona?)
Juan conoce su ciudad como la palma de su mano. (Juan knows his city like the palm of his hand.)
Conozco un restaurante que te va a encantar. (I know a restaurant you will love.)
3. When you have knowledge about a thing.
If you know a book because you have read it, you know a car model because you used to own it or you know a movie very well because it happens to be your all-time fav, use this verb, as well.
Once again, the easiest way of translating this verb would be “to know (about something),” “to be acquainted with (something)” and even “to have seen (something)”:
Conozco esa marca de café. (I know that brand of coffee.)
No conozco ese libro. ¿De qué va? (I don’t know that book. What’s it about?)
¿Conoces mi casa de verano? (Do you know my summer house? / Have you seen my summer house?)
And that’s all!
As you can see, it only takes a few rules and a couple of examples in order to master the Spanish verbs saber and conocer.
You can now be sure that the next time you talk about your knowledge about someone or something, you will use the correct Spanish verb.
You do not have to fear those moments when your friends ask you if you know someone or you have been to a place. You will know how to answer without hesitation!
What’s more, now you know how to understand sentences like Solo sé que no sé nada (I only know that I know nothing) and Sé que sabes que sé la verdad sobre cómo conocí a vuestra madre (I know you know I know the truth about how I met your mother) like a pro. Congrats!
Stay curious, my friends, and as always, happy learning!