Conoscere and Sapere

What is the difference between these two verbs please. When do you one above the other?


August 12, 2016


① When knowledge is a result of learning (e.g. a language, a list of names, a meaning, etc.) in most cases both verbs can be used, and take the same meaning; conoscere sounds more proper, sapere more colloquial.

  • (Tu) conosci / sai il francese? = Do you know French?

  • (Io) non conosco / non so le regole di questo gioco. = I don't know the rules of this game.

  • (Noi) conosciamo / sappiamo i nomi di tutti i giocatori. = We know the names of all the players.

  • (Voi) conoscete / sapete la formula del glucosio? = Do you know the formula of glucose?

Beware that with a few nouns sapere can be inappropriate. For instance, speaking of a law (legge, feminine), or of one's rights (diritti):

  • (Io) conosco questa legge. = I know this law.

  • (Loro) conoscono i loro diritti. = They know their rights.


  • (Io) so questa legge. → sounds wrong!

  • (Loro) sanno i loro diritti. → sounds wrong!

② When knowledge is the result of a previous experience (i.e. knowing out of having done something before), conoscere is the only verb used. This usually concerns people, places, food, films, etc.:

  • (Io) conosco tuo padre. = I know your father (having met him before).

  • Paolo non conosce Napoli. = Paul does not know Naples (never having been there before).

  • (Noi) conosciamo quel museo. = We know that museum (having been there before).

  • (Voi) conoscete il sushi? = Do you know sushi? (have you ever eaten sushi before?)

As far as people are concerned, a celebrity can be known not only having met him/her in person, but also out of fame. In this case too, conoscere is the only verb used:

  • Tutti conoscono quel regista. = Everybody knows that director (out of fame).

  • (Io) non conosco questo calciatore. = I don't know this football player (I never heard of him).

For somebody known by fame, only the present and imperfect tenses are used:

  • (io) conosco quell'attore = I know that actor (→ I saw him in a film, or read/heard of him)

  • (Lui) conosceva quell'attore = he knew /used to know that actor (→ he had seen him in a film, or had read/heard of him)

Otherwise one could say:

  • (Io) conosco di persona quell'attore. = I know that actor in person (→ I met him personally).

  • (Lui) conosceva di persona quell'attore. = He knew / used to know that actor in person (→ he had met him personally).

Using the future tense and any past tense that expresses a finished action (namely, the passato remoto, passato prossimo and trapassato prossimo), conoscere takes an actual meaning of "to meet" (for the first time).
Focus on the different meaning the verb takes when it is used in present tense and imperfect tense (which express a non-finished action) and when the other tenses are used:

  • (Io) conosco suo padre. = I know his father.

  • (io) conoscevo suo padre. = I knew / I used to know his/her father

  • (Io) conoscerò suo padre. = I'll meet his/her father (for the first time).

  • (Io) conobbi suo padre. = I (once) met his/her father (for the first time).

  • (Io) ho conosciuto suo padre. = I (have) met his/her father (for the first time).

  • (Io) avevo conosciuto suo padre. = I had met his/her father (for the first time).

Sometimes the difference in meaning when using the two verbs is subtle. For instance:

  • (Tu) sai questa poesia? = Do you know this poem?

  • (Tu) conosci questa poesia? = Do you know this poem?

If conoscere is used, the meaning can be either 'have you ever read this poem?' or 'have you learned this poem (by heart)?' If sapere is used, only the second meaning is conveyed.

③ When knowledge concerns time (hours of the day, days of the week/month, years, etc.), or before quando ('when'), only sapere is used:

  • (Tu) sai che giorno è? = Do you know what day it is?

  • (Noi) non sappiamo quando parte l'autobus. = We don't know when the bus leaves.

  • (Voi) sapete in che anno sono nato? = Do you know what year I was born?

  • Nessuno sa quando il museo riaprirà. = Nobody knows when the museum will open again.

④ Also before question words chi ('who'), che cosa ('what'), quale ('which'), come ('how'), dove ('where'), quanto ('how much'), perché ('because'/'why'), only sapere is used:

  • (Io) non so chi viene alla festa. = I don't know who is coming to the party.

  • (Voi) sapete che cosa è successo? = Do you know what happened?

  • (Tu) sai come riparare la bicicletta? = Do you know how to fix the bike?

  • Roberto sa dove trovarmi. = Robert knows where to find me.

⑤ Lastly, if knowledge concerns the ability to do something (e.g. 'can', 'be able'), only sapere is used, followed directly by the infinitive of a second verb. This is the typical construction of modal verbs (namely, potere, dovere, volere); also sapere is considered a modal when it takes this meaning:

  • (Tu) sai giocare a poker? = Can you play poker?

  • (Io) non so dipingere. = I am unable to paint.

  • Maria sa cucire benissimo. = Mary can sew very well.

  • (Voi) sapete usare questo apparecchio? = Are you able to use this device?

August 14, 2016

Meraviglioso! Grazie mille! I've given you a lingot!

February 25, 2018

Thank you for the detailed explanations! It seems to me as if you're describing the difference between conoscere = "to recognize" (German "(er)kennen") and sapere = "to know for sure/by heart" (German: "wissen"). Do you think this analogy is correct?

February 18, 2019

Sorry for the late reply, I found your query by chance, just now, coming back to this page.

Riconoscere = To recognize (i.e. to tell someone/something already known; to acknowledge the existence or legality of something).

Conoscere = To know (out of having learnt something, or heard/read about someone/something, or met/seen someone/something).

June 9, 2019

Conoscere = to know a person or to be acquainted with someone (or something). Sapere = to know a fact (have knowledge).

ex: Conosci mia sorella? Do you know my sister? (Are you acquainted with her?)

Sai dov'e' mia sorella? Do you know where my sister is?

August 12, 2016

This is a good rule, but be prepared to ear "conoscere" with a meaning similar to "sapere": "conosci il significato di una parola" and "sai il significato di una parola" are both correct and have the same meaning.

August 13, 2016


August 12, 2016

You're welcome.

August 12, 2016

Prego, prego

August 12, 2016
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