Pouvoir – can, to be able

Pouvoir - can, to be able
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An able French verb

Pouvoir is a very common French verb with irregular conjugations and an unusual relationship to some of its English equivalents.* Pouvoir generally means "can" or "to be able," but it’s a bit more complicated in certain tenses.

Pouvoir = can, to be able (ability)

Tu peux finir ce projet.   You can finish this project.
Je peux manger une pizza entière.   I can eat a whole pizza.

Pouvoir = can (request)

Peux-tu trouver mes clés ?   Can you find my keys?
Pouvez-vous ouvrir la porte ?   Can you open the door?

Pouvoir = may, might (possibility)

Je peux arriver vers midi.   I may arrive around noon.
Anne peut téléphoner demain.   Anne might call tomorrow.

To stress the possibility aspect, these ^ could be in the conditional.

Pouvoir = may (permission)

Pouvons-nous partir à 14h ?   May we leave at 2pm?
Puis-je vous aider ?   May I help you?

 Puis is a special je conjugation of pouvoir, used only in questions.

Pouvoir in the Conditional

In the conditional, pouvoir expresses a polite offer or request.

Je pourrais vous y amener.   I could take you.
Pourriez-vous nous aider ?   Could you help us?

In the past conditional, it means could/might have done, in terms of both ability and possibility.

J’aurais pu vous y amener.   I could have taken you.
Il aurait pu mentir.   He might have lied.

Pouvoir in the Subjunctive

In the subjunctive, pouvoir expresses a very formal wish.

Puisse le ciel les aider !   (May) Heaven help them!
Puissiez-vous avoir raison !   I truly hope you’re right!

Il se peut

As a pronominal impersonal verb, il se peut means "it’s possible" and requires the subjunctive.

Il se peut qu’elle soit malade.   It’s possible that she’s sick.
Il se peut que tu aies raison.   You might be right.

 * Whereas pouvoir is a fully conjugable verb, three of its common English equivalents – can, may, and might – are modal verbs, which have just a single form.

 Pouvoir in Past Tenses

Pouvoir has different meanings in the passé composé and imparfait.

Passé composé

Pouvoir = could, managed to, succeeded in.

J’ai pu finir le projet.   I succeeded in finishing the project.
Avez-vous pu partir tôt ?   Did you manage to leave early?
Il n’a pas pu lire.   He didn’t manage to read.


Pouvoir = could, was capable of (but no indication as to whether it actually happened)

Je pouvais finir le projet.   I was capable of finishing the project. (but did I?)
Pouviez-vous partir tôt ?   Could you leave early? (was it possible?)
Il ne pouvait pas lire.   He couldn’t read. (there wasn’t enough light)

Pouvoir in action

 Related lessons

Learn Spanish En español

Learn Italian In italiano

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Pouvoir - can, to be able

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