The powerful French verb pouvoir: conjugation and use

Updated: Sep 13


Pouvoir is one of the most commonly used French verbs. I like to say that it is a powerful verb as it has the power to unlock lots of expressions to enhance your vocabulary. Whether you want to say can, be able to, may, might or even ask for permission or be polite, you can just use the same verb pouvoir, as you wish.

In this lesson, you will learn the different uses of the verb pouvoir in French, as well as its conjugation in some key tenses that we use daily like the present, future, past tense, subjunctive, ...


Power Verb pouvoir in French



Different ways to use the verb Pouvoir in French


The verb pouvoir is one of the most commonly used verbs in the French language. It is an irregular verb like prendre or faire, belonging to the third group. Pouvoir means "can" or "to be able to". In other terms, it means the ability or capacity to do something. However, in some contexts, pouvoir can be translated as knowing how to do something or used to express permission or politeness.

Let's see it in detail with concrete examples.


Pouvoir as can or to be able to


The first meaning of pouvoir is can or to be able to in English. It conveys the idea of capability and ability to do something.

Examples :

  • Je peux lire une tonne de bouquins par mois. I can read tons of books per month.

  • Je peux nager sur le dos. => I can swim on the back.

In the last sentence, pouvoir can be replaced by the verb savoir (to know). Its translation will then be " I know how to swim on the back".


In some contexts, it can also express an interdiction, or something you are not allowed to do. Example: Vous ne pouvez pas entrez ici. =>You cannot enter here.


Pouvoir as May


Generally, French people use the verb pouvoir to ask or give permission. In that case, it can be translated as May.

  • Puis-je emprunter votre stylo? => May I borrow your pen? /Can I borrow your pen?

  • Puis-je sortir avec mes amis ce week-end? => May I go out with my friends this weekend?

For the last sentence, you may also use this formulation: Je peux sortir aves mes amis ce week-end? This formulation would be better for an informal conversation like it is here: parents and kids.

Using the phrase "puis-je" might seem unfamiliar to you, regarding what you have learned about ways to ask questions in French. You have certainly learned about the inversion of the verb and subject. However, le verbe pouvoir is quite particular as things don't really work as you were told, for the first person of singular (je). You can't say for instance Peux-je vous aider? But you should say instead Puis-je vous aider? => May I help you?

French verb pouvoir -Can or to be able


Pouvoir as might


Pouvoir can express the possibility, the chances that something happens. In that case, it is equivalent to the English counterpart "might". The reflexive form " Il se peut "is often used to express the possibility. It should be followed with subjunctive tense.

Examples :

  • Il se peut que je sois en retard. => I might be late.

  • Je pourrais venir plus tôt. => I might come earlier


Pouvoir used for politeness


To be polite, you can use conditional tense or the inversion form of pouvoir.

Examples :

  • Pourrais-je avoir une serviette s'il vous plaît? => May I have a towel please?

  • Pourriez-vous me dire où se trouve le métro? => Could you tell me where is the subway?


Pouvoir used to blame or make a reproach to someone


To make a reproach or subtly blame someone, you can use the verb pouvoir in past conditional tense. However, if you haven't reached level B1 in French yet, don't worry about how to conjugate the past conditional. Just remember this phrase. Tu aurais pu+infinive or vous auriez pu +infinitive => you could have ...

Examples :

  • Tu aurais pu m'appeler. => You could have called me.

  • Vous auriez pu nous dire la vérité. => You could have tolds us the truth.


Pouvoir as a noun

In this context, the gender of the word pouvoir is masculine: "le pouvoir. And it is a noun, not a verb.

Examples :

  • La recherche du pouvoir est souvent source de conflits. => The pursuit of power is often source of conflicts.

  • Le pouvoir d'achat est très faible dans les pays pauvres. => The purchasing power is very low in poor countries.


How to conjugate the verb pouvoir in French?


Here are conjugation charts of the verb pouvoir in the French language for the main tenses like the present, future, Passé composé, imperfect, conditional, and subjunctive tenses.

You will notice that it might sometimes be difficult to translate the verb pouvoir in English. For instance, the imperfect tense, passé composé, and conditional can all be translated by "could". However, the context and the meaning given to the word "could" will be the guide for better understanding.


Conjugation of Pouvoir in present tense

Conjugaison en français

English equivalent

Je peux

I can, I am able to

Tu peux

You can, you are able to

Il/elle peut

He or she can, He or she is able to

Nous pouvons

We can, We are able to

Vous pouvez

You can, You are able to

Ils/elles peuvent

They can, they are able to

Exemple : Elle peut danser la salsa. => She can dance salsa.




To be able in French future tense (futur simple)

Conjugaison en français

English equivalent

Je pourrai

I will be able to

Tu pourras

You will be able to

Il/elle pourra

He or she will be able to

Nous pourrons

We will be able to

Vous pourrez

You will be able to

Ils/elles pourront

They will be able to

Example : Tu pourras venir à Dakar pour les vacances? => Will you be able to come to Dakar for vaca

tions?


"Can" in the imperfect tense (imparfait)


In the imperfect tense, Je peux can be translated as I could, I was able to, or I used to be able to.

Conjugaison en français

English equivalent

Je pouvais

I could , I was able to

Tu pouvais

You could, You were able to

Il/elle pouvait

He or she could, he or she was able to

Nous pouvions

We could, We were able to

Vous pouviez

You could, You were able to

Ils/elles pouvaient

They could, they were able to

Exemple : Elle pouvait passer des heures devant son ordinateur portable. => She could spend hours in front of her laptop.



The verb Pouvoir in passé composé


The past participle of the irregular verb pouvoir in French is "pu". It is conjugated with the auxiliary "avoir" in passé composé.

Conjugaison en français

English equivalent

J'ai pu

I could, I was able to

Tu as pu

You could, You were able to

Il/Elle a pu

He or she could, He or she was able to

Nous avons pu

We could, We were able to

Vous avez pu

You could, You were able to

Ils/elles ont pu

They could, they were able to

Exemple : Nous avons pu arriver à temps. => We were able to arrive on time. / We managed to arrive on time.


Pouvoir au conditionnel présent


The pronunciation of the first person of future tense and conditional present is exactly the same. A l'oral, je pourrai = je pourrais [puʁɛ]

Conjugaison en français

English equivalent

Je pourrais

I could

Tu pourrais

You could

Il/elle pourrait

He or she could

Nous pourrions

We could

Vous pourriez

You could

Ils/elles pourraient

They could

Ex: Pourriez-vous me m'indiquer le lieu du mariage? => Could you indicate me the place of the wedding?


Pouvoir in subjunctive present

Conjugaison en français

English Equivalent

Que je puisse

That I can

Que tu puisses

That you can

Qu'il/elle puisse

That he or she can

Que nous puissions

That we can

Que vous puissiez

That you can

Qu'ils/elles puissent

That they can

Example: Il faut que tu puisses parler espagnol avant d'aller en Espagne. => It is essential that you speak Spanish before you travel to Spain.



Common French phrases and expressions with pouvoir


Here are useful French sentences that include the verb pouvoir with their meaning in English.

  • Peut-être : maybe

  • Vouloir c'est pouvoir => Literally means To want is to be able => When there is a will, there is a way

  • Je n'en peux plus => I can't take it anymore.

  • Je n'y peux rien => There is nothing I can do about it.

  • Je peux vous aider? => May I help you?

  • Vous pouvez répéter s'il vous plait? => Can you repeat please?

  • Tu peux parler plus fort? => Can you speak louder?

  • Je peux parler français. => I can speak French


Exercise for more practice on the verb pouvoir


Review pouvoir in the present tense






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