French verb focus: pouvoir, ‘to be able to’

French verb focus: <i>pouvoir</i>, ‘to be able to’

The French verb pouvoir means ‘can’, or ‘to be able to’ – another very common verb and yes, you’ve guessed it, it is irregular and takes a bit of learning. 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.

Present tense
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?

Future tense
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?


Perfect tense (passé composé)

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.

Conditional perfect
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.

Subjunctive tense
The subjunctive tense of pouvoir is irregular:

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

With thanks to Elizabeth Allen

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