If you ever find yourself caught trying to decide between saber vs conocer, this post will help.
Saber and conocer are commonly introduced together because they both translate to ‘to know’ in English. This can make them confusing.
That said, these two verbs aren’t as demanding as other Spanish challenges such as ser vs estar or por vs para. This is because saber and conocer have fairly well-defined roles in the Spanish language.
But, there is one situation where you can use them interchangeably. More on that later.
In this article, you’ll get a quick overview of when you should use saber and when you should use conocer. Then, we’ll take a look at the present and past conjugations for these verbs. Pay close attention to the conjugations of saber since they are quite irregular in the past simple tense.
Then, you’ll find an explanation of an important grammar rule to be aware of with conocer. And, of course, you’ll get a bunch of examples for each of the separate uses of saber and conocer.
So, with that said, let’s dive into the quick side-by-side comparison of these two important verbs.
Saber vs Conocer: A quick overview
As I mentioned earlier, ‘to know’ can translate to both saber and conocer. So, how do you know which verb to choose?
Well, it depends entirely on what it is that you ‘know’.
Here is a quick summary of how to decide between saber and conocer:
Saber: facts, information, how to do something.
Conocer: people, places, things.
So for example, if you ‘know’ a person (a friend or someone famous), you always have to use conocer.
If, on the other hand, you ‘know’ about something that someone did (such as a speech or an invention), you have to use saber since it is now a piece of information. A simple way to avoid confusion with saber and conocer is to change the way you think about the translation of these verbs. This means it helps to think about saber and conocer as follows:
English: To know
English: To meet, have been to, to be familiar with.
So, a key question to ask yourself is: can you replace the word ‘know’ in an English sentence with ‘to meet’, ‘have been to’, or ‘to be familiar with’? If you can, you probably need to use conocer in Spanish.
Saber vs Conocer: Present conjugations
In the present tense, both saber and conocer are regular in all conjugations except for the first person.
Here are the conjugations of saber and conocer in the present tense:
|Él / Ella
Notice the irregular conjugations sé and conozco.
Saber vs Conocer: Past conjugations
In the pretérito indefinido (past simple tense), saber is very irregular.
Here are the conjugations of saber in the two past tenses:
|Él / Ella
Take note of the prefix ‘sup’, this makes saber in the past simple one of the stranger verb conjugations in Spanish. I suggest practising it more than other conjugations to help it stick in your mind.
In contrast, and despite having an irregular first person present conjugation, conocer is completely regular in the past.
Here are the conjugations of conocer in the two past tenses:
|Él / Ella
Conocer is definitely a simpler verb to conjugate when compared to saber. But, that doesn’t mean conocer is without its own challenges.
So, let’s look at one important grammar rule you need to keep in mind with conocer.
Conocer and the preposition ‘a’
As noted above, when you are using conocer, you will be talking about people, places, or things that you are familiar with. But, if you are referring specifically to people, you have to be careful.
Here is the main grammar rule with conocer you need to know:
If you are referring to people, you have to use the preposition ‘a’.
English: I’m familiar with your friend.
Español: Yo conozco a tu amigo.
If you are not talking about people, you have to drop the ‘a‘:
English: I’m familiar with your country.
Español: Yo conozco tu pais.
This use of ‘a‘ with conocer and people takes a little getting used to. This is the thing you probably need to practice the most with this post!
If you want to learn more about the preposition ‘a’ in general, check out this podcast episode.
Saber – Use 1 – For facts
When you ‘know’ about things such as scientific facts, events, or general trivia, then use saber as follows:
English: Do you know where Gael Garcia Bernal is from?
Español: ¿Sabes de dónde es Gael García Bernal?
English: Does anyone know how many people live in Spain?
Español: ¿Alguien sabe cuántas personas viven en España?
English: I didn’t know that there are 21 countries that speak Spanish.
Español: No sabía que hay 21 países en los que se habla español.
Saber – Use 2 – For information
If you have knowledge about any general information that may be useful such as where something is located, when a train is going to depart, or the status of a situation, you can also use saber:
English: Do you know what time the train departs?
Español: ¿Sabes a qué hora sale el tren?
English: Do you know where I can find this statue?
Español: ¿Sabes dónde puedo encontrar esta estatua?
English: Yes, I already know they are separated.
Español: Sí, ya sé que están separados.
Saber – Use 3 – How to do something
For the third use of saber, you can talk about your skills or specific areas of expertise.
The rule looks like this:
English: I know how to do…
Español: Yo sé… (+ verb in infinitive form or field of expertise)
You need to remember that for this use, saber, replaces all of ‘how to do’ in English. Moreover, a common error is to say:
Español: ‘yo sé
como…‘ (I know ‘how’).
Here are some examples:
English: I know how to speak Spanish.
Español: Yo sé hablar español.
English: He doesn’t know how to sing.
Español: Él no sabe cantar.
English: I know maths.
Español: Yo sé matemáticas.
To reiterate, you may find it tempting to include como when using saber this way. I know have definitely made this mistake several times.
When you are practising, try to force yourself to quickly follow saber with an infinite verb without including como in between.
Like many things with learning Spanish, the key is to practice a concept many times to help it stick!
Conocer – Use 1 – People
As noted above, always remember to include the preposition ‘a‘ when using conocer with people.
English: I’m familiar your cousin. (I’ve met)
Español: Conozco a tu primo.
English: I have already met your wife.
Español: Ya he conocido a tu esposa.
English: She told me that she doesn’t know you. (Isn’t familiar with you)
Español: Ella me ha dicho que no te conoce.
Conocer – Use 2 – Places
Again, if you are familiar with places, you need to remember to drop the preposition ‘a‘.
English: I’m not familiar with Spain. (I haven’t been to)
Español: No conozco España.
English: I’m familiar with your city because I went there in 2010.
Español: Conozco tu ciudad porque fui allí en 2010.
English: He knows this place very well.
Español: Él conoce muy bien este lugar.
Conocer – Use 3 – Things
The last use of conocer is for describing your knowledge of things such as technology.
English: I’m not familiar with the latest iPhone.
Español: No conozco el último iPhone.
English: I’m well familiar with that camera, I used it on my last overseas trip.
Español: Conozco bien esa cámara, la usé en mi último viaje al extranjero.
English: I’m familiar with the technology but I haven’t tried it.
Español: Conozco la tecnología, pero no la he probado.
Conocer in reciprocal sentences
In Spanish, reciprocal verbs are used to describe two people doing the same action to each other. These verbs are constructed using reflexive pronouns.
Sentences with conocer in the reciprocal form are quite common since they refer to two people meeting each other. For example:
English: How did you meet each other?
Español: ¿Cómo os conocisteis?
English: When did we meet?
Español: ¿Cuándo nos conocimos?
English: They met each other in 1991 and have been in love ever since.
Español: Se conocieron en 1991 y están enamorados desde entonces.
Reciprocal verbs are often confused with reflexive verbs. Both come under the category of pronominal verbs. If you would like to read more about pronominal verbs, check out this post.
The overlap between saber and conocer
Up to this point, the distinction between saber and conocer should hopefully have been pretty clear.
There is, however, one area where you might notice overlap between these two verbs in Spanish.
You can see saber and conocer used interchangeably when talking about abstract ideas.
English: The scientists want to know the secrets of the universe.
Español: Los científicos quieren saber los secretos del universo.
English: The scientists want to know the secrets of the universe.
Español: Los científicos quieren conocer los secretos del universo.
There is a subtle difference in meaning between these two sentences in Spanish. But, in this context, if you were to translate the idea from English to Spanish it wouldn’t really matter whether you choose saber or conocer, the idea would be clear.
How well do you know saber vs conocer? Hopefully, by now, lo conoces como la palma de la mano (you know it like the palm of your hand).
If you want to learn more, you can listen to the podcast episode on saber vs conocer here.
The key to any challenge with Spanish is to take what you have read and put it into practice. Try to use three examples from this post this week and include a sentence conocer and ‘a‘, a past simple conjugation with saber, and the third use of saber for describing something you know ‘how to do’.
How else can you use saber vs conocer in a Spanish sentence?