Word of the Week: “Pouvoir”

Word of the Week: “Pouvoir”

This is a double-edged word that can go to your head or put you in control of your own destiny and it has a way of always making its way to the media headlines. Let’s look at the word pouvoir and its majestic applications.

Pouvoir, the noun, means capacity, ability, faculty and possibility.

“Pouvoir diabolique, irrésistible, magique, magnétique, mystérieux, occulte, secret, sans bornes, sans limites; pouvoir de fascination, de séduction.
Le comique, le rire, est le dernier pouvoir qui reste à un homme sur un autre”, Stendhal, Journal,1805, (Diabolical, irresistible, magical, magnetic, mysterious, occult, secret, without boundaries, without limit, the ability to fascinate and seduce. Humour, laughter, is the last power left that one man has over another.

Pouvoir is also a verb. The proverb goes “Qui peut le plus peut le moins; si jeunesses avait et vieillesse pouvait.” (those with the most ability are the least able, if only the young had and the old could). In this sense we see that the verb pouvoir can be able to the capability as well as the possibility of doing something. It can also be used similarly to the word can in English, as in “Faire ce qu’on peut” (we do what we can).

In certain contexts, pouvoir can be used to express a certain temerity. “Ah, si tu savais ce qu’il a pu me faire souffrir!” (Oh, if you only knew what he’s put me through).

It can also express a wish, or desire. “Chacun de nous −ah! puissiez-vous retenir ces paroles d’un vieil ami! −est tour à tour, de quelque manière, un criminel ou un saint”, Bernanos, Soleil Satan (Each one of us – oh! if only you could remember these words from an old friend – is in turn, in a certain way, both criminal and saint.

All power has the potential for evil so yes, you guessed it, pouvoir is both transitive and irregular. Let’s look at the conjugation with these tips by Elizabeth Allen. We need to think carefully about the meaning of ‘could’ in English: if it means ‘would be able to’ (e.g., I could come tomorrow), we use the conditional tense in French. If it means ‘was able to’, we use the imperfect tense (je pouvais) in French.

Je peux—I can, I am able to
Tu peux—You can, you are able to (sing. fam.)
Il peut—He can, he is able to
Elle peut—She can, she is able to
Nous pouvons—We can, we are able to
Vous pouvez—You can, you are able to (pol. pl.)
Ils peuvent—They (f.) can, they are able to
Elles peuvent—They (f.) can, they are able to

(sing. fam.) – singular, familiar
(pol. pl.) – polite plural

There is a special question form that exists for the first person singular (je):

Puis-je sortir? – Can I go out?
You can also say:
Est-ce que je peux sortir?


The future tense (and thus the conditional also) is irregular:

Je pourrai vous expliquer tout. – I will be able to explain everything to you.
Tu pourras m’accompagner? – Will you be able to come with me?
Il pourra venir demain? – Will he be able to come tomorrow?
Nous pourrons retourner la semaine prochaine. – We will be able to return next week.
Vous pourrez me contacter le soir. – You will be able to contact me in the evening.
Elles pourront voyager durant la nuit. – They will be able to travel during the night.

It is more polite to use the conditional than the present tense to ask if someone can do something for you:

Pourriez-vous m’aider? – Could you help me?


Pouvoir makes the perfect tense with avoir, but the past participle is irregular:

J’ai pu l’aider. – I was able to help him.
Tu as pu partir à l’heure. – You were able to leave on time.
Elle a pu lui téléphoner. – She was able to telephone him.
Nous avons pu acheter ce que vous vouliez. – We were able to buy what you wanted.
Vous avez pu faire vos devoirs? – Were you able to do your homework?
Ils ont pu prendre le train. – They were able to take the train.

This tense is made with the conditional tense of the auxiliary verb (in this case avoir) followed by the past participle:

J’aurais pu venir. – I could have come.

The subjunctive tense of pouvoir is irregular:

Nous doutons qu’il puisse venir. – We doubt that he can come.

Don’t despair, you don’t learn a language in a day. Keep trying, remember …

“Vouloir c’est pouvoir” (where there’s a will there’s a way).

Find more French verbs here

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Sylvia is a freelance journalist based in France, focusing on business and culture. A valued member of the France Media editorial team, Sylvia is a regular contributor to our publication.

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  • Joseph Fitzgerald
    2014-02-06 03:02:41
    Joseph Fitzgerald
    Thank You, I enjoy your newsletters. We do travel to France at least once a year.


    • Sylvia Edwards Davis, Property & Living Editor
      2014-02-06 09:02:52
      Sylvia Edwards Davis, Property & Living Editor
      Thank you so much for the kind words, Joseph!