Sometimes the trickiest grammar topics are the ones that seem really simple.
For example, the use of imperfetto and passato prossimo is taught towards the beginning of the Italian grammar learning experience but, as I have tried to explain in an old post of mine, it is one of the trickiest aspects of Italian.
We always focus on the congiuntivo as one of the most difficult grammar topics in Italian yet it is really important to know the difference between imperfetto and passato prossimo because, if natives sometimes forget the use of congiuntivo, no native will ever make a mistake using imperfetto or passato prossimo.
The same can be said for the grammar topic I want to focus on today, which is the difference between conoscere and sapere. Those two verbs, which can be both translated into English as ‘to know’, have their own specific meaning in Italian yet can easily be confused by foreign speakers.
As I have done with imperfetto and passato prossimo and with other grammar topics, like the use of verbs piacere and mancare, or the direct and indirect object pronouns and the use of ci and ne, I am writing this post to help you figure out the difference between those two verbs and how to use them.
So let’s find out the difference between conoscere and sapere.
You use the verb conoscere when:
1. you refer to knowing a person or meeting a person for the first time
Conosci la mia amica Emilia? No, non la conosco (Do you know my friend Emilia? No, I don’t know her)
Ieri ho conosciuto tua mamma. È molto simpatica! (I have met your mom for the first time yesterday. She’s really nice!)
Non conosco molte persone in questa nuova città e mi sento un po’ sola (I don’t know many people in this new city and I feel a little alone)
Io e Francesco ci siamo conosciuti a Roma (Francesco and I met in Rome for the first time)
2. you refer to something you have actively learned or got to know after studying or learning or because you have experienced it
Mia sorella conosce a memoria tutte le poesie di Shakespeare perché le ha studiate a scuola (My sister knows all Shakespeare’s poems because she has learned them in school)
Paolo conosce a fondo tutte le regole del tennis, è un grande appassionato (Paolo knows all the rules of tennis, he’s a great fan)
Io conosco molto bene la storia romana perché ho letto tutti i libri sull’argomento (I know Roman history very well because I have read all the books about the topic)
Conosco bene Roma perché ci ho vissuto vent’anni (I know Rome very well because I have lived there for twenty years)
You use the verb sapere when:
1. when it refers to your skills or abilities, when you know how to do something. In this case, it works as a modal verb and is followed by the infinitive
Io conosco tutte le regole del calcio, ma non so giocare (I know all the rules of soccer but I don’t know how to play)
Le mie figlie sanno parlare benissimo lo spagnolo e anche un po’ di francese (My daughters can speak Spanish very well and know a bit of French too)
Mia mamma non sa cucinare, tutte le cose che prepara fanno schifo (My mom doesn’t know how to cook, everything she cooks is terrible)
Sai andare in bicicletta? Certo, ho imparato da bambino! (Do you know how to ride a bike? Sure, I learned when I was a kid!)
2. when you got to know something passively, when you refer to a piece of information you learned by chance, without actively trying to learn it. In this case, it is usually followed by a subordinate clause.
Non sapevo che fossi ritornato a vivere in Italia (I didn’t know you moved back to Italy)
Sai a che ora parte il treno per Milano? Mi dispiace, non lo so (Do you know what time the train to Milan leaves? I am sorry, I don’t know)
Sono arrivata in ritardo perché c’era sciopero dei treni e io non lo sapevo (I have arrived late because there was a train strike and I didn’t know about it)
Sai come arrivare alla stazione? Non ne ho idea, mi spiace (Do you know how to get to the station? I have no idea, I am sorry)
This is the difference between conoscere and sapere in Italian. As usual, if you have questions please leave a message in the comments below!
As I always do with posts about the Italian language, I have created a downloadable pdf file for you to keep for future reference. You will find it in Your Italian Toolbox, the private page on my site where I upload all language learning materials, under the section Grammar. If can access the page by simply subscribing to my newsletter.
If you are interested in working on Italian grammar and want to focus on some specific topics, I suggest you check Ti aiuto io, my online Italian language tutoring service.
If you purchase Ti aiuto io, I will work as your private tutor, giving you tasks and homework and spending time over Skype with you to clarify and work together on each topic. If you want to give it a try, you can request a 30-minute free chat, so that we can meet each other and see if you like the service.