How do you say can in French?

On this page, we will look at how to say the equivalent of English can in French. In English, can generally expresses various things such as:

  • possibility ("he can run fast");
  • permission ("I can take the day off tomorrow");
  • to make a request: ("can you help me?");
  • a suggestion or offer ("I can do it if you prefer", "Can I help?");
  • expressing that one has know-how for doing something ("I can swim").

It turns out that in French, "can" in the sense of knowing how to do something tends to be expressed in a slightly different way to the other meanings listed. So the first section below will deal with the first four meanings together and we'll move on to the last meaning of "know-how" in a moment.

"can" in the sense of possibility, permission or suggestion

To say can in French to indicate possibility or permission or a suggestion, we usually use forms of the verb pouvoir. In English, the verb can is a special type of verb which essentially has a single fixed form (in other words, you say he can, not he cans when talking about possibility)1. But in French, the verb pouvoir is a fairly "normal" verb and has different forms, just like any other verb. So we need to use the correct form depending on the person (je, tu etc).

[1] It is arguable whether could is a past tense form of can, or a separate verb in its own right. This argument isn't too important for our purposes here.

In English, can is usually followed by another verb. The second verb is an infinitive: in other words, it is the "basic" form ending in -r, not any special form (like is, are, comes) to match a particular person. So for example, you would say: "he can be", "she can come", and not "he can is", "she can comes". The verb pouvoir in French works in a similar way: we'll need to chose the right form of pouvoir itself depending on the person, but we won't need to change the second verb, which will just stay in the "basic" infinitive form.

To say "I can" in French, the form is je peux. We can then follow this with the infinitive as mentioned. So for example, to say I can come, we need to follow je peux with the basic form (infinitive) of the verb meaning "(to) come": venir. So the French for "I can come" is je peux venir. Similarly, to say "I can help", this would be je peux aider. To say "I can wait", using the verb attendre (to wait), this would be je peux attendre.

The French for "you can", using the familiar tu form, is tu peux: it turns out that in this case, the actual verb form (peux) is the same as the je form. So to say "you can come", in French this would be tu peux venir.

The French phrases for "he can" and "she can" are il peut and elle peut: in this case, the final -x changes to a -t in the spelling. So to say "she can help", this would be elle peut aider.

To say "we can" in writing, the nous form would be nous pouvons. So to say "we can come", the form would be nous pouvons venir. But remember that in everyday, informal spoken French, nous isn't used very much. Instead, on would be used, and so the usual way to say "we can come" in spoken French would be on peut venir.

The vous form, used to say "you can" when talking to several people or when addressing one person formally, would be vous pouvez. To to say "you can come in", using the verb entrer, this would be vous pouvez entrer (this same sentence could also mean "you can go in"-- the French verb entrer covers both senses).

To say "they can" in French, you need to choose between elles (the feminine form, used to refer to a group of people who are all female) and ils (the masculine form, used to refer to an all-male group or a mixture of male and female). In either case, the actual verb form is peuvent. For example, "they can come" would be either ils peuvent venir or elles peuvent venir.

If the subject of the sentence is the name of an actual thing or person (i.e. a noun), such as David, the computer, my parents etc, then the form of the verb is either peut (singular) or peuvent (plural). In other words, it is the il/elle form. For example, to say "David can help", this would be David peut aider; to say "the computer can help", this would be l'ordinateur peut aider; to say "my parents can come", this time using the plural form of the verb to indicate more than one parent, this would be mes parents peuvent venir.

"can" used to make a request

In English, "can" is often used to make a question which implies a request: can you finish this for me? can you peel the potatoes?

The French verb pouvoir can be used in a similar way. To do so, we use one of the forms mentioned in the previous section. But we need to make it into a question. So for example, to say "Can you...?", this would become Peux-tu...? or Pouvez-vous...?. Forms with est-ce que are also possible, so that "Can you help me?" using the tu form could be expressed as Peux-tu m'aider? or Est-ce que tu peux m'aider?. For more details, see the section on how to ask a question in French.

"can I...?"

The French equivalent to "Can I...?" is puis-je. In a similar way to English, this can be used to make a request or to make a suggestion or offer. For example:

puis-je vous aider?
can I help you?
puis-je venir?
can I come?
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For more information about why the word vous comes before aider in the first of these examples, see the section on pronouns.

Note that before a verb beginning with a vowel, puis-je is still written with the final -e, even though it would not actually be pronounced in that case.

"can" in the sense of "know how to"

As mentioned, French usually expresses "can" in the sense of "have the know-how to" in a slightly different way. In phrases such as "She can swim", "They can speak German", where what is being referred to is know-how rather than physical ability, permission etc, then French tends to use the verb savoir, which literally means to know how to. The forms of the verb savoir are as follows:

PersonForm of savoir
jeje sais... I can/know how to...
tutu sais... You can/know how to...
il/elleil/elle sait... He/she can/knows how to...
nousnous savons... We can/know how to...
vousvous savez... You can/know how to...
ils/ellesils/elles savent... They can/know how to...

Deciding which of these forms to use essentially works as with pouvoir above and with other verbs. So for example, to say You can/have the know-how to... when addressing a single person informally, you would use the form tu sais. So to say You can speak French, this would be Tu sais parler français2. To say I can swim, this would be je sais nager.

As we'll mention in a second, in the sense of "You may speak French", "We don't mind if you speak French", then pouvoir could still be used: Tu peux parler français.

So what about sentences like Je peux nager, Il peut parler français? Well, these aren't "wrong" as such. But they tend to mean "can" in senses other than "have the know-how". So for example, Je peux nager would tend to imply "I have the physical ability to swim", "I have the courage to swim", "I don't mind swimming" or "I have permission to swim". Similarly, Il peut parler fran├žais would tend to imply "He has the courage to speak French", "He doesn't mind speaking French", or "He can speak French" in the sense of "He sometimes speak French".

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.