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.

Present Tense...
SABER (to go)
CONOCER (to be: permanent)
Ud., él, ella
Uds., ellos, ellas

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.”

Por ejemplo:

¿Sabes tú leer música?
Do you know how to read music?
Yo sé escribir en español.
I know how to write in Spanish.
Ellos saben jugar a las cartas.
They know how to play cards.
¡No sé!
I don’t know!

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.”

Por ejemplo:

Ellos conocen el sitio donde van a tener el concierto.
They know the site where they’re going to have the concert.
Conozco este modelo, como casi lo compré anteriormente.
I know this model, as I almost bought it previously.
No conozco al abuelo de Estefanía.
I don’t know Stephanie’s grandfather.

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.

Knowing Places

The word conocer can be difficult to translate when you’re talking about places. For example, if someone asks you…

¿Conoces España?

…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.

Por ejemplo:

¿Conoces mi casa?
Do you know my house?
¿Conoces Nueva York? ¡Que chévere!
Do you know New York? How cool!

In the next section we’ll work on Talking about what you like, love, and lack


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