To translate “to know” in French, we use two irregular verbs:
In this lesson, I am not going to go over the French irregular verb conjugations, but will explain which one to use, and also how to avoid a big misunderstanding between French and English speakers.
Many English speakers might not really understand when a French person asks them “Connaissez-vous Paris ?”: In French, it means “Have you been there yourself?”, not just “have you heard of it”.
Most method will tell you that “savoir” is to know with a sense of having acquired knowledge, and “connaître” is to know as in to be familiar with… pretty vague if you ask me.
In fact, it’s much easier than that. What matters is what follows.
To Know in French – Savoir Versus Connaître
A – Savoir: To Know + Question / Infinitive /Nothing
“Savoir” is followed by an interrogative expression (où, pourquoi, qui, avec qui, quand, etc…):
- Tu sais où il habite ? Do you know where he lives?
- Savez-vous à quelle heure ils arrivent ? Do you know what time they’re coming?
- Sais-tu pourquoi il a dit ça ? Do you know why he said that?
“Savoir” is followed by a verb, to say “knowing how to…”:
- Je sais danser. I know how to dance.
And “savoir” can also be used alone.
- Tu sais qu’il arrive à 3 heures? Oui, je sais.
B – Connaître: To Know + People / Places
“Connaître” means “to know” with the idea to be personally familiar with, to have experienced it yourself.
It is always followed by a NOUN – it cannot be followed by anything else.
In most cases, “connaître” is followed by nouns of people and places.
- Tu connais Sylvie ? Do you know Sylvie ?
- Vous connaissez Paris ? Do you know Paris?
This is where the English speaker has to be careful. When a French person says “Est-ce que vous connaissez Paris ?”, in most cases he/she doesn’t mean “Do you know (of) Paris”, but rather “Have you personally been there?”. Same with people; if you said “Je connais Brad Pitt”, French speakers may think you have met him.
I have a funny story an American student told me. He was in Paris and met a lovely French woman in a bar, and started to speak with her. She didn’t speak any English, so he was speaking in French.
He said: “Je viens de Boston. Vous connaissez Boston ?”
And the woman answered: “Non.”
Then he said: “Ce n’est pas loin de New-York, vous connaissez New-York?”
And the woman answered: “Non.”
He was a bit surprised but carried on: “C’est aux Etats-Unis, vous connaissez les États-Unis?”
And she answered “Non.”
Puzzled, he thought to himself: “Cute, but not so smart…”.
Of course, she understood he was asking her whether she had been there herself, not whether she knew where it was…
So, in my opinion, what is important in that lesson is not the basic rule to translate to know in French – it’s rather easy… Connaître + people / place… Savoir with all the rest! But the trick is to understand and know what to answer when someone asks: “vous connaissez ….”.
On a related subject, you may be interested in my article about how to ask someone out on a date in French
Connaître – to Know as to be Personally Acquainted With
So now, let’s see how you can answer questions like: “Est-ce que vous connaissez Paris / Gérard Depardieu” ?
The trick here is to understand the question: and this depends a bit on the context, the tone of the question.
- “Est-ce que vous connaissez Paris” almost always means “have you been there yourself”.
- “Est-ce que vous connaissez Gérard Depardieu”… well, are you in the movie industry? In this case, it probably means “have you met him personally”. On the other hand, if you are just discussing movies, it’s more likely to mean “do you know who he is?” – unless you said something before that could make believe that you actually knew him personally. So, with people the context is very important.
Answering a Question With Connaître in French
To answer a question with “connaître”, you’ll probably need to switch verb, and use a verb a bit more precise than “to know”:
- Est-ce que vous connaissez Paris ?
Non, je n’y suis jamais allé(e) – I’ve never been there.
Oui, j’y suis allé(e) il y a + time – Yes, I’ve been there… ago
- Est-ce que vous connaissez Gérard Depardieu / Catherine Deneuve
Oui, je le/la connais bien – Yes, I know him/her well.
Oui, je l’ai déjà rencontré(e) – Yes I’ve already met him/her.
Non, je ne l’ai jamais rencontré(e) – No, I’ve never met him/her
More Q&A Using to Know in French
- Est-ce que vous connaissez Chenonceau (a gorgeous castle in the Loire Valley – see picture below)
Non, mais j’en ai entendu parler – (I’ve never been there myself) but I’ve heard of it
Je n’en ai jamais entendu parler – I’ve never heard of it.
- Est-ce que vous connaissez Sylvie/ Pierre ? (not a famous person, maybe a friend of mine)
Non, mais j’ai entendu parler de lui / d’elle – (I have never met him/her personally) but I’ve heard about him / her
Non, je n’ai jamais entendu parler de lui/d’elle – I’ve never heard about him/her
- Est-ce que tu sais qui c’est – Do you know who it is?
Je sais qui c’est, mais je ne le/la connais pas personnellement – I know who it is, but I don’t know him/her personally.
- Est-ce que vous savez où c’est – Do you know where it is?
Je sais où c’est, mais je n’y suis jamais allé(e) – I know where it is, but I’ve never been there myself.
Non, pas du tout – no not at all.
Typical Dialogues With To Know in French
– “Vous connaissez Paris ?”
– “Oui, j’y suis allé(e) il y a 3 ans.”
– Or “non, je n’y suis jamais allé(e).”
– “Tu connais Anne ?”
– “Oui, je l’ai rencontrée chez Pierre.”
– “Non, je ne la connais pas personnellement, mais je sais qui c’est. En fait, j’ai beaucoup entendu parler d’elle.”
To Know + Noun in French
Now, all this being said, I have to admit that “savoir” can also be used with a noun. Never a person though. When savoir is used with a noun, it has the meaning of to know as a result of having studying it. Most of the time, you can use “connaître” there as well (so why make your life difficult? Stick with connaître + noun and you’ll be fine…)
- Tu sais ta leçon ? = tu connais ta leçon ? = You know (you’ve studied) your leçon.
To Know by Heart in French
To say “to know by heart”, we say “connaître par coeur”. “Savoir par coeur” doesn’t exist.
- Tu connais ta leçon ? Do you know your leçon.
- Oui, je la connais par coeur. Yes, I know it by heart.
To Know Men or Women… Bible like
In the Bible or older French text, you may find something like “Marie n’avait pas connu d’homme” (Mary didn’t know any man) – this meaning is sexual, it means she had not been with a man. We would not use that in modern French.
Knowledge in French
Since you have two verbs, you’re going to have two nouns: honestly, to explain the difference is going to be very hard… Most of the time they are interchangeable, but I’ll try.
- le savoir – is the knowledge you have acquired from learning something. We talk a lot about “le savoir-faire” for artisans for example.
- la connaissance – is inside you. It’s your own interpretation of a general knowledge. It’s the word commonly used for “knowledge”.
Voilà, I hope you won’t hesitate to translate to know in French from now on.