Spanish Verbs: Saber and Conocer
Strange Shades of Meaning
You cannot expect to have a language that’s a literal one-on-one translation of another language. As a result, you find some Spanish words that seem to convey a million and one English meanings (such as the word llave, which can mean a key, a tap, or a wrench). Conversely, you are going to find many verbs in Spanish that have shades of meaning that don’t exist in English, such as ser and estar.
The verbs saber and conocer fall into the latter category. Both verbs mean “to know.” They are very, very useful in everyday life, but they are used in different contexts. If you understand which verb to use, you can also ask someone if he or she knows someone else, or even tell people, “I don’t know!”
Which verb you use will depend on what is being known in your sentence.
Saber is used in the context of knowing information or ideas.
e.g., “Yo sé como cocinar.” I know how to cook.
Conocer is used in the context of knowing a person or a place.
e.g., “¿Conoces bien la ciudad?” Do you know the city well?
The present tense conjugations of the verbs can be seen in the following table. You will notice that both ‘yo’ forms are irregular in the present.
SABER: To Know Information or How to Do Something
Saber is used when the subject knows a piece of information or how to do a specific task. It can be translated as “to know” as well as “to know how.”
CONOCER: To Know a Person, Place, or Thing
Conocer is used when the subject knows a particular person or place, as in, “Do you know where to go?” or “Do you know Jamie?”
It can also be used in the context of knowing a particular thing, such as, “I know this computer. I used to work on it before I switched desks,” or “I know that outfit! I almost bought it last week.”
Notice that in the third example, the direct object is a person, which means that you should add the word “a” before “el abuelo.” Remember that a + el = al.
The word conocer can be difficult to translate when you’re talking about places. For example, if someone asks you…
…they usually want to know if you’ve been to Spain. If, on the other hand, they ask:
¿Conoces España bien?
…they want to know whether you are familiar with the country, i.e., whether you know it well.
In the next section we’ll work on Talking about what you like, love, and lack