Italian modal verbs – Difference between sapere and potere

Italian modal verbs – Difference between sapere and poterePotere and sapere are two Italian modal verbs that are widely used. So, knowing how to use them is essential to communicate clearly and effectively.

If some of the uses of sapere and potere are quite simple to grasp, some others can be confusing at first.

Let’s start from the explanation on how to use the verb sapere and potere and then we’ll move on to their differences.

I’m going to use an extract of my Italian grammar for this explanation.


Potere is usually followed by a verb in the infinitive.

Potere can be generally used to:

a. Express the ability or the possibility to do something

Ex: Io posso aiutarti a finire l’esercizio
I can help you finish the exercise

b. Express the permission to do something

Ex: Possiamo andare al cinema stasera?
Can we go to the movies tonight?

c. Ask something in a gentle way

Ex: Posso avere un bicchiere d’acqua, per favore?
Can I have a glass of water, please?


The verb sapere – to know – can also be used as a modal verb when it expresses the ability to do something.

Ex: Maria sa nuotare
Maria can swim

You’ve surely noticed that the verb potere and sapere can seem to have a very similar meaning at first: they both indicate the ability to do something.


So, what’s the difference between these two modal verbs?

Potere is generally used when the ability to do something depends on the willingness of people or on the possibility of doing something.


Posso aiutarti (se vuoi)
I can help you (if you want)

Visto che ha smesso di piovere, possiamo andare in spiaggia
Since it has stopped raining, we can go to the beach

The first example above implies that if a person is willing to accept my help, I can help him/her.

The second, instead, implies that since the rain has stopped there is the possibility for us to go to the beach.

Sapere is generally used when the ability to do something has been acquired or learned. So it’s generally used when talking about skills.

Ex: So parlare francese
I can speak French

Now try to grasp the difference between the following sentences:

1. Posso nuotare (I can swim)
2. So nuotare (I can swim/I know how to swim)

The first sentence means that I’m able to swim, but I’m not willing to do it right now, maybe because I’m tired, or the water is too cold.

The second sentence, on the other hand, means that I’ve acquired the skill of swimming. So, it simply states that I can swim, without any other implication.


Now that you know how to us the Italian modal verbs potere and sapere try to answer these questions: Cosa puoi fare? Cosa sai fare?


Original image by pixel2013

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