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All about Pouvoir

Everything you need to know about the irregular French verb pouvoir

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Pouvoir is one of the most common French verbs. It is irregular in conjugation and literally means "can" or "to be able to." Pouvoir has different meanings in certain tenses and is found in numerous expressions.

Ability

In general, pouvoir means "to be be able to," usually translated by "can" or "may":

   Il peut le faire
   He can do it.

   Nous pouvons essayer
   We can try.

   Puis-je m'asseoir ici ?
   May I sit here?

Puis is an alternative to peux, the most common first person singular conjugation. Puis is usually used for questions:

   Puis-je vous poser une question ?
   May I ask you a question?

   Puis-je vous aider ?
   May I help you?


Possibility

Pouvoir can also express possibility or conjecture:

   Il peut être malade
   He might/may be sick.

   Tu peux le perdre
   You might lose it.


Meaning Changes

In the past tenses, pouvoir can have different nuances. In the passé composé, pouvoir means "could" in the sense of "was able to, managed to, succeeded in." In the imperfect, pouvoir also means "could" but only in terms of ability/possibility; it does not indicate whether or not the action actually took place.

   Il a pu le faire. - He could (and did) do it.
   vs
   Il pouvait le faire. - He could do it (he was capable).

   Je n'ai pas pu sortir. - I couldn't (and didn't) go out.
   vs
   Je ne pouvais pas sortir. - I couldn't go out (it was too difficult).

   Learn more: Advanced past tenses

In the past conditional, pouvoir means "could/might have done" (both ability and possibility):

   Auriez-vous pu le faire ?
   Could you have done it?

   Il aurait pu le perdre.
   He might have lost it.

In the conditional, pouvoir is used to express a polite request:

   Pourriez-vous m'aider ?
   Could you help me?

   Je pourrais vous poser une question ?
   May I ask you a question?

In the subjunctive, pouvoir is a high-register (formal) way to express a wish:

   Puisse Dieu vous aider !
   May God help you!

   Puisse-t-il y réussir !
   May he succeed!


Il se peut

Il se peut is an impersonal verb that means "it is possible" and is followed by the subjunctive:

   Il se peut qu'elle vienne.
   It is possible that she will come, She may come.

   Il se peut que nous soyons en retard.
   It's possible that we're late, We might be late.


Peut-être

The adverb peut-être means "perhaps" or "maybe":

   Tu vas venir ? Peut-être.
   Are you going to come? Maybe.

   Nous allons peut-être voir un film.
   We might see a movie, Perhaps we'll see a movie.


Notes

Pouvoir is one of a handful of French verbs that can be made negative with just ne, rather than ne... pas.

   Je ne peux sortir.
   I can't go out.

   Il ne peut vous aider.
   He can't help you.

Learn more about this phenomenon, known as the ne littéraire.


Pouvoir is also used in a number of idiomatic expressions


Conjugations

Present tense

   je peux, puis
   tu peux
   il peut
   nous pouvons
   vous pouvez
   ils peuvent

All tenses


Most common French verbs
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