POTERE vs RIUSCIRE vs SAPERE

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Is it "posso suonare il pianoforte" or "so suonare il pianoforte" and is it "non posso guidare" or "non riesco a guidare". Let's talk about this in today's article!


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Ciao a tutti and welcome to a new blog post. In today's article, we are going to talk about the differences between these three verbs: potere, riuscire, and sapere. I've already talked about the verb "sapere" on my channel (check out the video here). In that video, I compared the verb SAPERE to CONOSCERE and I would suggest you to watch that first before watching this video, I am sure it will help.

Today we will focus on the differences between these three verbs, because trust me they are very different, especially sapere vs potere. When I talk about this in class with my students I usually start telling this:

  • Io non posso guidare la macchina.

  • Io non riesco a guidare la macchina.

  • Io non so guidare la macchina.

How are these three sentences different? Well, they can approximately all translate "I can't drive" but in order to understand how to use these verbs, we need to understand why "you can't drive". Let's start with potere:

  • Io non posso guidare la macchina perché mia mamma non vuole.

  • Io non posso guidare la macchina perché non ho la patente.

In the first case, you can see that you can't drive because your mom doesn't want you to. Maybe you know how to drive, you have a license but your mom doesn't allow you to drive. So we use the verb "potere" when the ability to do or not to do something depends on somebody else's will or permission. But also, we would use the verb "potere" when the ability to do or not to do something depends on an external circumstance, for example, not having a license. It's not really up to you, maybe you know how to drive and your mom gives you permission, but if you don't have a license and don't want to break the law, there's really nothing you can do.

  • Io non riesco a guidare perché ho troppo mal di testa.

  • Io non riesco a guidare perché mi fa male la gamba.

Here, you can see that we use the verb "riuscire" when the ability to do or not to do something depends on a physical or mental condition, like having a bad headache or have a sore leg. These two conditions prevent you from driving even though you could or you know how to.

  • Io non so guidare perché non ho mai imparato.

In this case, you can't drive because you never learned how to, so we're talking about a skill that you don't have yet.

As you can see these verbs are very different! And now, I am going to ask you a question. Which one of these three sentences is the correct one?

  • Non posso parlare bene l'italiano.

  • Non riesco a parlare bene l'italiano.

  • Non so parlare bene l'italiano.

The first one is definitely wrong. Why? Well, because you don't need permission to speak Italian from anyone and I am sure there are no external circumstances you can't do anything about that is preventing you from speaking Italian.

"Non riesco a parlare" works though! Let's say you're having a bad day, you're not concentrated and you're tired. "Riuscire" would work in this case because we're talking about a mental state.

Finally, "non so parlare" is perfect. Why? Well, because you're still learning so sometimes you can't speak very well but you'll get better. So again we are talking about skills.

Just note that the difference between "potere" and "riuscire" sometimes is very subtle. For example, let's say you went to the dentist and got one of your teeth removed. You can't talk because your mouth hurts so bad. So, in that case, would it be:

  • Non posso parlare.

  • Non riesco a parlare.

Well, both of them would work. We can see your swollen mouth as something out of your control, there's nothing you can't do, so it's definitely an external circumstance. But at the same time, you can't talk because of a physical condition, you can't properly move your mouth and tongue so "riuscire" would work as well.

But, although, the line between potere and riuscire is subtle, the line between potere and sapere is HUGE! So don't get them mixed up.

If you have any questions about this topic, don't hesitate to send me a message in the contact section of my website.


Un abbraccio dall'Italia,


Teacher Stefano


Do you want to take your Italian to the next level? Check out my Online Italian course for beginners "Be Italiano" and start learning today to become a real Italiano, like me!
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