In Spanish and Portuguese, there are two verbs that mean “to know”: CONOCER and SABER. Knowing which one to use in a particular situation is one of the stumbling blocks that occasionally trips up even advanced students.
To understand the difference, the student is expected to memorize the rules that go something like this:
CONOCER: to know a person, a place, city, an object
Robert conoce este barrio.
Robert knows this neighborhood.
Robert conoce a John y Alice.
Robert knows John and Alice.
SABER: to know a fact, a skill, a discipline, a telephone number or information in general.
Robert sabe la dirección. Robert knows the address.
Robert sabe cocinar. Robert knows how to cook.
This stuff is not that complicated, but then there is always a corner case. If you want to say “I know PowerPoint”, which one should you use? It gets even more difficult when you have to use these two verbs in the past tense. In Spanish, there are two simple past tenses, and depending on which one you use the meaning of these two verbs changes quite significantly.
All of this is covered by existing grammar books and online tutorials — I don’t claim to add anything new here. However, even after I mastered the rules thoroughly I found that in doing exercises it took me a couple of seconds each time to summon them and match them to the situation.
What I’d like to share is a small trick that makes memorizing the rules unnecessary and also sheds some light of the meaning change in the Preterite tense. The trick is this:
If the thing you know is INSIDE your mind use SABER, if it is OUTSIDE of your mind use CONOCER.
I know his telephone number. Telephone number is INSIDE my mind. => Yo sé su numero de telefono.
I know Robert. Robert is OUTSIDE my mind. => Yo conozco a Robert.
I know this neighborhood. The neighborhood is OUTSIDE of my mind. => Yo conozco este barrio.
I know mathematics. The knowledge of mathematics is INSIDE my mind. => Yo sé matemáticas.
In general, the knowledge of a subject, a fact, or a phone number is information, and, as such, it is physically resides INSIDE your brain, the way a text file is physically on a hard-drive. Likewise, a skill, such as riding a bike, is entirely contained within your body; it is not a reference to anything outside of it.
Conversely, a person, a neighborhood, or an object is located OUTSIDE of your mind. That is, with CONOCER what you have inside your mind is a reference for something outside of it, but not the actual thing.
You can see this difference most vividly with information that could be inside your mind but currently isn’t:
Yo conozco PowerPoint pero no lo sé.
I know of PowerPoint but I don’t know how to use it. (More colloquially, in English, we’d probably say: “I’ve heard of PowerPoint but I don’t really know how to use it”).
If you actually do invest your time in learning PowerPoint and become an expert, then you will be entitled to use SABER with abandon and leave CONOCER for the amateurs. This is because something that was initially OUTSIDE your mind is now INSIDE of it.
Another interesting factoid tells us that we may be on the right track. In Spanish, the verb SABER is also used to mean “taste”, as in taste of food.
Esta comida sabe a pollo.
This food tastes like chicken.
When I first learned this, I was mystified by this coincidence and eventually decided that the two SABERs were just two different homonyms like “a spring of water” and “a spring in the mattress”.  But now I’m thinking that maybe the ancestral Spaniards were on to something — after all food, like information, is something that we put inside ourselves. Well, this probably a stretch, and they are probably just homonyms, but I wanted to mention it as a humorous connection.
SABER and CONOCER in Preterito Indefinido
Grammar materials also note that the meaning of SABER and CONOCER changes when they are use Preterito Indefinido, and, instead of meaning “I knew”, they come to mean, respectively, “I found out” an “I became acquainted with”. Now, this seemed a bit odd to me when I first learned it but our simple rule sheds some logical light on this.
The grammatical meaning of Preterito Indefinido in Spanish is that it communicates the “perfective aspect” of the verb. Speaking as a programmer it would one might say that it communicates “state change” of whatever the verb represents.
So let’s analyze what it means to change state from NO SABER to SABER. It means that a piece of information was not inside your mind but now it is, this is exactly the definition of “FOUND OUT”.
Robert supo la noticia.
Robert found out the news.
Likewise, what is the meaning of the state change from NO CONOCER to CONOCER? It is the fact that you begin to recognize something, you now have a symbol for it inside your mind (and you did not before) — that is the definition of “become acquainted with”.
Robert conoció a John y Alice.
Robert met John and Alice. (there is now a symbol for John and Alice in Robert’s mind)
1. On second thought, as I was writing this, I realized that even “a spring of a mattress” and “a spring of water” and even “Spring the season” are not as unrelated as it may seem. They all have to do with springing, an upward gravity-defying motion — in the case of Spring the season it’s the growth of grass and plants. Are there any true homonyms? Or, if you dig deep enough through layers of metaphor, you always find some basic concept like “jumping”?
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