Pouvoir (Can, Able To) Meaning, Usage, Example Sentences

pouvoirThe meaning of the French verb pouvoir are “can” or “able to”. The underling meaning of this verb always relates to capability. On this page we’ll look at some basic usages with example sentences.

Basic usages

  • Je ne peux pas faire le travail maintenant. I can’t do the work now.
  • Elle ne peut pas finir son travail avant six heures. She can’t finish her work before six o’clock.
  • Nous ne pouvons pas acheter la voiture. We can’t buy the car.

May I = puis-je

When asking a question in the first person (je) you must do an inversion with “puis-je”

  • Puis-je vous poser une question? May I ask you a question?
  • Puis je vous parler? May I speak to you?

Polite request

To make a polite request, use pouvoir in the conditional. This is in contract to “pouvez-vous” which is less polite.

  • Pourriez-vous m’aider, s’il vous plaît? Could you help me please?
  • Pourriez-vous me donner vos clés? Could you give me your keys?

Passé composé

In the passé composé the past participle (pu) plus infinitive is used to described “was able” to do something. 

  • J’ai pu y aller hier. I was able to go yesterday.


In the negation, “je n’ai pas pu + Infinitive” describes not being able or capable of doing something. 

  • Je n’ai pas pu préparer le repas parce que je n’avais pas de temps. I couldn’t prepare the meal because I didn’t have time.
  • Il n’a pas pu réparer la todeuse. He was unable to fix the lawnmower.

Reflexive usage

In the reflexive se pouvoir means to be possible, may or might. It’s written with the impersonal expression il se peut. 

  • il se peut que j’aie oublié. It’s possible I forgot.
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