Savoir: The More You Know

You may already know that the verb savoir means “to know.” But did you know that, when followed by an infinitive, it can also mean “to be able to” or “to manage to" (synonymous with pouvoir)?




L'Observatoire Paris-Meudon... a su garder sa spécificité d'astrophysique

The Paris-Meudon Observatory... was able to keep its astrophysical specificity

Captions 18-20, Voyage en France Meudon - Part 4

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L’article a su le convaincre à recycler.

The article managed to convince him to recycle.


It’s easy to see that “know” wouldn’t really work in either of these examples, since their subjects aren’t human. You wouldn’t say that the Paris-Meudon Observatory “knew” how to keep its astrophysical specificity, nor that an article “knew” how to convince someone. 


On the other hand, there are plenty of cases where savoir plus an infinitive can go either way:


Pour quelqu'un qui sait faire la cuisine

For someone who knows how to cook

Caption 63, Alsace 20 Grain de Sel: le titre de Maître Restaurateur, c'est quoi?

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Bref, Jean de La Fontaine fait partie pour moi de ces auteurs intemporels qui à travers une forme littéraire intéressante a su toucher le fond de la nature humaine.

In a word, Jean de La Fontaine is for me one of those timeless authors who, through an interesting literary form, was able to reach the depth of human nature.

Captions 38-40, Le saviez-vous? Jean de La Fontaine - Part 1

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We could just as well switch the translations here: “someone who can cook”; “Jean de La Fontaine… knew how to reach the depth of human nature.” "To be able to" and "to know how to" are more or less synonymous, so it makes sense that they overlap in the same French verb.  


Just note that the other verb for "to know," connaîtredoesn't have this extra connotation. While savoir means "to know how to" or "to be aware of," connaître means "to know someone" or "to be acquainted/familiar with." 


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