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A little quirk concerning the verb sapere

We talked about the important verb sapere (to know) in a previous lesson. You might have also figured out that even though sapere means "to know," in English, "to know" isn't always translated into Italian with sapere. It can also be translated as conoscere (to know, to be familiar with, to meet for the first time). We have a lesson about that, too.

Sapere (to know how)

Another nuance of the verb sapere is that it often means "to know how." In this case, just as "to know how," in English, is followed by a verb in the infinitive (such as in "to know how to do something"), sapere, when it means "to know how" is also followed by a verb in the infinitive. We can see an example of this in the following clip.

 

Ma come, l'hai inventata tu la Lettera Ventidue e non la sai usare?

But how come? You invented the Lettera Twenty-two and you don't know how to use it?

Caption 38, Adriano Olivetti La forza di un sogno Ep. 1 - Part 24

 Play Caption

 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

An alternative translation

But there is another similar way to translate this sense of sapere. And that is with "can" or "to be able to." Just as with "can," sometimes it's about being capable of doing something (as in the previous example), and sometimes it is about being able to or kind enough to do something (as in this next example).

Mi scusi, buon uomo. Mi sa dire l'ora, per favore? -Le cinque e trentacinque. -Ma è sicuro? E trentasei mo, eh! -Ah! Grazie, eh! -Prego.

Pardon me, my good man. Can you tell me the time, please? -Five thirty-five. -But are you sure? -[And] thirty-six now, huh! -Ah! Thanks, huh! -You're welcome.

Captions 1-7, Barzellette L'asino che dà l'ora

 Play Caption

 

Literally, this might have been translated as: "Do you know how to tell me the time?" But that's not really what he means. Of course, the guy on the scooter could have said something else, such as:

Sa che ore sono (Do you know what time it is)?

 

but that isn't actually asking for the person to share the information. He also could have said:

Mi può dire che ore sono (can you tell me what time it is)?

Mi può dire l'ora per favore (can you tell me the time, please)?

Che ore sono, per favore (what time is it, please)?

Può dirmi che ore sono (can you tell me what time it is)?

 

So we can use the verb potere (to be able to), but using sapere to mean "can" in certain contexts, especially with verbs such as dire (to say) indicare (to indicate), consigliare (to recommend), is a very typical way to ask if someone can do something. It is ever so slightly round-about and gives an impression of informal politeness. We might say it's a cross between "Can you?" and "Do you know how?"

 

Exercises

1) Can you ask the above questions using the informal form of address?

 

2) How about transforming these sentences by replacing potere with sapere?

-2a) Mi puoi dire come raggiungere la stazione (can you tell me how to get to the station)?

-2b) Non poteva dirmi l'ora perché non aveva l'orologio (she couldn't tell me what time it was because she didn't have her watch on).

-2c) Non ti posso consigliare una buona pizzeria perché non sono di questa zona (I can't recommend a good pizzeria because I am not from around here).

 

Answers to exercises:

 

1) 

Sai dirmi l'ora (can you tell me the time)?

Sai che ore sono (do you know what time it is)?

Mi puoi dire che ore sono (can you tell me what time it is)?

Mi puoi dire l'ora per favore (can you tell me the time, please)?

Che ore sono, per favore (what time is it, please)?

Puoi dirmi che ora sono (can you tell me what time it is)?

2)

2a) Mi sai dire come raggiungere la stazione (can you tell me how to get to the station)?

2b) Non sapeva dirmi l'ora perché non aveva con se l'orologio (he/she couldn't tell me what time it was because she didn't have her watch on).

2bb) Non ha saputo dirmi l'ora perché non aveva con se l'orologio (he/she couldn't tell me what time it was because she didn't have her watch on).

3c) Non ti so consigliare una buona pizzeria perché non sono di questa zona (I can't recommend a good pizzeria because I am not from around here).

 

Let us know if you have any questions (newsletter@yabla.com), and thanks for reading!

 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

 

 

 

 

 

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