What’s the difference between saber and poder?

Introduction

The verbs saber and poder can be confusing for English speakers. Things that are expressed with saber (know) in Spanish are expressed with can (poder) in English, and vice versa. Learn to use saber and poder correctly with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Carlos ha pinchado la rueda de su bici en el campo y no puede volver a casa. Por suerte, sabe cómo arreglar el pinchazo. Como lleva las herramientas consigo, podrá tener la bici lista en unos minutos. Lo que no sabe es que puede que llueva, así que mejor que lo haga rápido.

saber

The verb saber can generally be translated into English as know, and more specifically, know how. It is used to express knowledge and certainty. We use it in the following cases:

  • information;
    Examples:
    No sabe que va a llover.He doesn’t know if it’s going to rain.
    He’s not aware of the forecast.
    ¿Sabes cuándo es el examen de matemáticas?Do you know when the maths exam is?
    Have you seen the information anywhere?
  • learned or innate abilities;
    Examples:
    Carlos sabe reparar su bici.Carlos knows how to repair his bike.
    He has the knowledge and the experience
    No cantar.I don’t know how to sing.
    I don’t have the ability to harmonise, I’m tone deaf.
  • languages.
    Example:
    hablar inglés y alemán pero no polaco.I know how to speak English and German but not Polish.

poder

The verb poder can be translated into English as can or be able to. We use it to talk about practical or physical abilities and uncertainty.

  • physical abilities or capacity to do something at the moment of speaking;
    Examples:
    Carlos no puede volver a casa.Carlos can’t go home.
    Because his bike is broken.
    Carlos puede reparar su bici.Carlos can repair his bike.
    Because he has the necessary tools.
    No puedo cantar.I can’t sing.
    Because I have a sore throat.
    Las personas no pueden respirar bajo el agua.Humans can’t breathe underwater.
    Because they breathe through their nose not through gills.
  • possibility;
    Example:
    Puede que llueva.It might rain.
    There is a chance of rain.
  • permission.
    Examples:
    Carlos solo puede salir con la bici después de hacer los deberes.Carlos can only go out on his bike after he’s done his homework.
    With the permission of his parents.
    Aquí no se puede fumar.You can’t smoke here.
    According to the rules.

Differences to English

When we talk about the ability to speak a foreign language in English, we use can as well as know how, however in Spanish we only use saber.

Examples:
hablar inglés y alemán. → I know how to speak English and German. OR I can speak English and German.
Not: Puedo hablar inglés y alemán.

Likewise, when we talk about physical abilities in English we use can as synonymous with know how to, however in Spanish the choice of saber or poder creates a change in meaning. Compare:

Examples:
No cantar. → I can’t sing. (I don’t know how to sing)
This means I physically don’t have this ability; I can’t harmonise, I’m tone deaf, etc.
No puedo cantar. → I can’t sing.
This means that while I physically have the ability to sing, I can’t at the moment of speaking; I have a sore throat, I’m not in the mood, etc.

Expressions with saber and poder

Although the verbs poder and saber are different and used in different contexts, their similarity in meaning means that they are used in many common expressions in Spanish. Many of these also include the verb querer (to want).

Expression Meaning
Si no es que no sepa/quiera, es que no puedo.

It’s not that I don’t know how, it’s that I can’t.

Someone has the ability and the knowledge to do something, but something external (lack of materials, lack of permission etc.) prevents them from doing it.

Poder, puedo; pero no quiero.

I can, but I don’t want to.

Someone is able to do something, but doesn’t want to.

Por poder...

Following a list of suggestions or possible actions, the speaker ironically expresses that there are numerous options. Generally, the speaker will then go on to express the difficultly of following any of them.

¿No puedes o no quieres?

You can’t or you don’t want to?

The speaker wants clarification on what’s stopping the other person from doing something.

Querer es poder.

To want it is to do it.

Desire alone is enough to do the impossible.

Si quieres, puedes.

See above.

No sabe, no contesta.

If you’re not answering then you don’t know.

When someone remains silent in response to a question in an incriminating manner.

El saber no ocupa lugar.

Knowledge doesn’t take up space.

Referring to knowledge stored in the brain, it doesn’t take up space so you can never have too much.

No saber hacer la o con un canuto.

To not know if you’re coming or going.

An ironic expression that refers to a lack of basic knowledge about something easy.

darse bien

In the same context, a common expression in Spanish is darse bien. It can be translated into English as to be good at something. It refers to abilities that are partly learned and partly innate.

Examples:
A Encarna se le da muy bien restaurar muebles.Encarna is good at restoring furniture.
¿Se te da bien bailar?Are you good at dancing?

Like in English, this expression can be used in both positive and negative contexts (good at, bad at etc.) and can express different degrees of ability (great at, terrible at etc.).

Examples:
A mi hermana se le da genial hacer fotos.My sister is great at taking photos.
A Lourdes se le da regular la repostería.Lourdes is ok at baking.
A mí se me da fatal la jardinería.I am terrible at gardening.