Table of contents Chapter 20 20.10 poder (to be able to)

Chapter 20: Modal verbs (Auxiliaries)

  20.10 poder (to be able to)

When discussing poder we have to keep in mind that there is a difference in Spanish between something that is learned and an ability that just is there. This is usually not so clear in English even though we are able to differentiate the same way. Have a look at these sentences they are totally different if you think about it.


I can see. (I have eyes that work fine)
I can write. (I know how to write because I learned it)

The first sentence does not describe the result of a learning process.
The second sentence describes exactly this result of a learning process.


Él sabe escribir, pero de momento no puede.
= He can (knows how to) write but at the moment he is not able to.

can can be translated with poder but only in the meaning of being able (or not being able to) without a learning process involved.
can is translated with saber only in the meaning of to know how to including a learning process.
To keep up this difference more clearly we distinguish between poder = to be able to and saber = can (to know how to).


Sabe escribir. = He can write (He knows how to write).
Sé conducir. = He can drive a car (He knows how to drive a car).
Sabemos español. = We know Spanish.

Puedo comer. = I am able to eat eat.
Podemos dormir.
= We am able to sleep.
Podéis ir. = You are able to go.

Sentences like Sabemos dormir or Sé ver are pure nonsense. Nobody would say I know how to see because it's not a question of learning to see. Of course we could start - once again - a philosophical discussion about the sentence "No sabe ver". This sentence means that due to non-existing education the person doesn't know to see (to appreciate) the beauty of art or live or a landscape. He would have to read Marcel Proust to learn how to see. However back to Spanish grammar.