Apprendre la Langue Française (Part 44): le verbe – pouvoir (l’usage, les expressions et conjugaison au présent)


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.

In general, pouvoir means “to be able to,” usually translated by “can” or “may.” For example:

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, for example:

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

Puis-je vous aider? May I help you?

Pouvoir can also express possibility or conjecture, for example:

Il peut être malade. He might/may be sick.

Tu peux le pedre. You might lose it.

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 means “could” but only in terms of ability/possibility; it does not indicate whether or not the action actually took place. For example:

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 difficult).

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, for example:

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, for example:

Puisse Dieu vous aider! May God help you!

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

Il se peut is an impersonal verb that means “it is possible” and is followed by the subjunctive, for example:

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.

The adverb peut-être means “perhaps” or “maybe,” for example:

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.

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.

Pouvoir is also used in a number of idiomatic expressions:

pouvoir bien (avoir raison, e.g.)
could very well (be correct)

pouvoir ne pas + infinitive
to not have to, not be obliged to

n’en pouvoir plus
to have had it, be worn out, not be able to take any more

n’en pouvoir plus de + infinitive
to be fed up with, not be able to bear ___ing

n’en pouvoir plus de + noun
to be beside oneself with (joy, fear, anger, etc.)

ça ne se peut pas (informal)
that’s impossible

ça se peut (informal)
maybe, perhaps

C’est on ne peut mieux. It couldn’t be better.

Comment se peut-il que…? How can it be that…?

faire ce qu’on peut
to do what one can

Il peut (informal) It may/could/might

Il peut y avoir There may/might/could be

Il pourrait s’agir de It could be/have to do with

Il pourrait se faire que It may be that

Il se peut/pourrait que + sunbjunctive
It may be, it’s possible that

Je n’y peux rien. There’s nothing I can do about it.

On ne peut plus + adjective
It couldn’t be more ___ (or ___er)

On ne peut mieux. No one could (be, do, etc.) better.

On n’y peut rien. It can’t be helped, There’s nothing we can do.

Puisse Dieu…May God…

Puisse le ciel…May Heaven…

Qui peut le plus peut le moins. He who can do more can do less. (proverb)

Qui puis-je pour vous? What can I do for you? How may I help you? (formal)

s’il se peut
if it’s (at all) possible

Tu peux! Vous pouvez! You should be! I should say so!

le pouvoir
power, ability

perhaps, maybe

Here’s the conjugation of the verb pouvoir in present tense:

je peux, puis nous pouvons
tu peux vous pouvez
il/elle/on peut ils/elles peuvent

In summary, possible meanings of pouvoir are:

  • to be able to
  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • to be allowed to
  • to manage to

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