The Italian verbs ‘Sapere’ and ‘Conoscere’: differences and use
In English the verb to know is used to express knowledge in all its forms: you can either say that you know a person, a fact, that you have an in-depth knowledge about a subject or that you know in the meaning of being aware or having perception of something.
The verb to know comes from the old English knowen and knoulech that have replaced the Latin rooted cognitus and sapiens, which have instead become of common use in most of the languages originated from Latin.
In the specific case of Italy, cognitus and sapiens prevailed and came to define ‘knowledge’ in two main ways: cognitus corresponds in fact to the Italian conoscere – which gives rise in English to ‘cognition’ – and sapiens evolved into sapere, from which in English we get ’sage’ and ‘sapient’.
Even though very often conoscere and sapere can have the same meaning and be sometimes interchangeable, most of the times they are actually characterised by different uses for specific contexts and meanings.
Let’s have a closer look and learn when and how to use conoscere and sapere
Conoscere means to have a thought-out knowledge of something, to be acquainted with someone, a topic, a subject or a matter. It also means to have experienced something and to be familiar with it personally, in a much deeper way compared to the more superficial sapere.
Conoscere + people
Whether you met someone just once or you know them pretty well, in Italian you have to use the verb conoscere, perhaps with a qualifier.
Conosco molto bene Francesca. / I know Francesca very well.
Ho conosciuto Marco soltanto una volta. / I met Marco just once.
Ci conosciamo di vista. / We know each other only by sight.
Conosci un buon parrucchiere? / Do you know a good hairdresser?
Conosco una signora di 100 anni. / I know a 100 years old lady.
Conoscere + experiences
Conoscere is used for knowledge or understanding gained from a direct experience.
Quando vivevo a New York, ho avuto modo di conoscere la vita frenetica di quella città. / When I used to live in New York, I had the chance to know the hectic life of that city.
Conosco questo tipo di situazioni. Fai attenzione. / I know this type of situations. Be careful.
Conoscere + places
Conoscere can be used when talking about places, such as cities, regions, countries, restaurants, bars, venues and locations of any sort.
Non conosco Napoli molto bene. / I don’t know Naples very well.
Sì, conosco quel ristorante ed il cibo è eccellente. / Yes, I know that restaurant and food is excellent!
Quando ci vivevo, conoscevo molto bene la Sicilia. / When I lived there, I knew very well Sicily.
Conoscere + subjects
Conoscere is also used to indicate a deep knowledge of a subject matter, either or not academic.
Conosco molto bene le poesie di Ungaretti. / I know very well Ungaretti’s poems.
Marco conosce molto bene le ricerce del Professor Hawking. / Marco knows very well Professor Hawking’s researches.
Conosco i tuoi trucchetti. / I know your tricks.
Usually sapere is used when referring to a more superficial and less experienced knowledge. It is normally used for factual knowledge, such as being informed of something, a situation, a fact or being aware of something that exists or has happened.
Sapere + factual knowledge
Sai che domani piove? Sì, lo so. / Do you know that tomorrow is going to rain? Yes, I am aware.
Non so cosa fare per festeggiare il mio compleanno. / I don’t know what to do to celebrate my birthday.
Non so cosa dire. / I don’t know what to say.
Non so mai cosa mettere in valigia. / I never know what to put in the suitcase.
Sapere as to hear about / find out (superficial knowledge)
Sapere can also be used with the meaning of: to hear about something, to find out, to learn something by chance or be informed of something.
Come lo hai saputo? / How did you find out?
Ho saputo ieri sera che Gaetano e Giulia si sono sposati la scorsa estate. / I heard last night that Gaetano and Giulia got married last summer.
Non sapevo che Alessandro fosse avvocato. / I didn’t know that Alessandro is a lawyer.
Sapere as to taste (of)
Sapere + di means to have the flavour, the scent of something, to taste or not taste like something.
Questo arrosto sa solo di bruciato. / This roast tastes only of burnt.
Il salmone sapeva troppo di fumo. / The salmon tasted too much like smoke.
Questa pasta non sa di niente. / This pasta tastes like nothing.
Quella ragazza non sa di niente. / That girl is insipid.
Quel vino sapeva di aceto. / That wine tasted like vinegar.
Sapere – know-how
Sapere is also used in the meaning of knowing how to do something. In this specific case, sapere is always followed by a verb at the infinitive.
Non so sciare, ma so pattinare sul ghiaccio. / I don’t know how to ski but I can ice-skate!
Marta sa parlare molto bene il tedesco. / Marta knows how to speak German very well.
Mio marito sa cucinare. / My husband knows how to cook.
Giulio no sa fare nulla. / Giulio doesn’t know how to do anything.
Sapere as know-how can be also used as a noun – il sapere, meaning ‘knowledge’:
Il suo sapere è infinito. / His knowledge is infinite.
Saper parlare inglese è molto utile. / Knowing how to speak English is very useful.
Sapere in the impersonal form
Sapere is often used impersonally to mean general knowledge: ‘it is well known’, ‘it is known to all’, ‘everyone knows’.
Si sa che gli italiani amano il buon cibo. / It is well known that Italians love good food.
Lo sapevo che sarebbe andata così. / I knew it would end like this.
The past participle saputo (risaputo) is also used for these impersonal constructions:
È saputo/risaputo da tutti che Marco è una persona generosa. / It is known to all that
Marco is a generous person.
Sapere as to think or opine
Generally in informal conversations, sapere is also used in the present tense to opine on something; it is a way to express a mix of guess, impression and/or speculation that finds its best translation in English with the verb to surmise:
Mi sa che stanotte nevica. / I surmise it’s going to snow tonight.
Mi sa che tra quei due c’è più di una semplice amicizia. / I surmise that between those two there is more than a simple friendship.
Fare + sapere / Fare + conoscere
Both sapere and conoscere can be introduced by the verb fare as a helping verb: far(e) sapere means to tell / inform, while fare conoscere is used to introduce a person or a place to someone.
Roberta ci ha fatto sapere che domani non verrà. / Roberta let us know that she is not coming tomorrow.
Fammi sapere se vuoi venire al cinema. / Let me know if you want to come to the cinema.
Marco ha fatto conoscere la sua nuova ragazza a sua madre. / Marco introduced his new girlfriend to his mother.
Angelo mi ha fatto conoscere la sua cittadina. / Angelo introduced me to / showed me around his town.
When sapere and conoscere are interchangeable
In many situations sapere and conoscere can be interchangeable.
Giulia conosce / sa molto bene il suo mestiere. / Giulia knows her job very well.
Marco, sai / conosci bene le regole! / Marco, you know the rules well!
Mia nipote sa / conosce già i numeri. / My niece already knows the numbers.
You can also say the same thing using either sapere or conoscere, but in a different sentence structure.
So di avere sbagliato. / I know that I was wrong.
Riconosco che ho sbagliato. / I recognise being wrong.
For a no native Italian speaker it can be quite difficult to get used to the different uses of sapere and conoscere. To make your learning process a bit easier, just bear in mind that conoscere is generally broader than sapere, and can even encompass it.
If in English you want to express ‘having knowledge of something’, you should translate in Italian with sapere; if what you mean is “being acquainted or familiar with a person” or ‘being well versed in something’, the right choice is conoscere.
I am sure you found this article very helpful; the difference between sapere e conoscere is often tricky for learners of Italian. However, learning how to use them with the right guidance will help you to grasp the concept much faster. I can help; if you have questions please get in touch for a free consultation by clicking here or send an email to email@example.com
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