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How do you say “can” in Spanish? Today we’ll explore the verb Poder and start using it to say “can”, “can’t”, and “might” in Spanish.

Full Podcast Episode


We can do this.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

Today we’re going to learn how to say “can” and “can’t” in Spanish. By the end of this episode, you’ll be able to say things like “he can’t have that” and “we can do this”.

To kick this off, let’s talk for a minute about auxiliary verbs in English. Here’s a very simple, three-word sentence:

They have that.

In English, there are a bunch of different words that we can add before “have” to change the meaning. These words include “will”, “would”, and “can”. So we can change this sentence to:

They will have that.

They would have that.

They can have that.

Now, Spanish is a bit different; we’ve learned that in Spanish, you don’t add a word to change “have” into “will have”; you instead change the verb itself. So ellos tienen eso turns into ellos tendrán eso. In other words, there’s no word for “will” in Spanish; it’s not its own verb.

And it’s the same with “would”. Instead of adding the word “would”, like we do in English, we simply change the way the verb is conjugated. Ellos tienen eso changes to ellos tendrían eso.

However, there IS a verb for “can”. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly used verbs in Spanish, and it has as many conjugations as any other verb.

The name of the verb is poder, spelled p-o-d-e-r. Generally, you’ll use a conjugation of poder before the infinitive of another verb. The most common conjugation is puedo, which is the first person, meaning “I can” or “I am able”. So here’s a very simple sentence example:

I can do that.

Puedo hacer eso.

We can put pretty much any verb infinitive after puedo to indicate what we’re able to do or be. Here are some more examples.

I can be there.

Puedo estar ahí.

I can be your friend.

Puedo ser tu amigo.

I can’t have that.

No puedo tener eso.

Now, in English, the word “can” applies to all persons: “I can”, “she can”, “they can”, “you can”, and “we can”. But in Spanish, there’s a different conjugation for each of the five persons in the present tense, so we’re going to learn all five today.

Most of the conjugations are similar to puedo: They have a stress on the syllable “wade”. Some of our students like to use a memory palace where a bunch of people have to “wade” through a pool of water when they enter the Poder building. Either way, here are those forms of Poder:

he/she/it can: puede

you can (informal): puedes

they can: pueden

Let’s practice these with a mini-quiz.

I can be here that day.

Puedo estar aquí ese día.

They can be friends.

Pueden ser amigos.

Can you do it carefully?

¿Lo puedes hacer con cuidado?

Which house can I have?

¿Cuál casa puedo tener?

You(formal) can’t be here anymore.

Usted ya no puede estar aquí.

To say “we can”, you use the form podemos, which is pretty normal; it’s like poder, but with mos at the end. Try it out with this sentence:

Can we have this?

¿Podemos tener esto?

Now what’s weird about this verb is that it’s kind of like Haber, it doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning by itself; instead, it’s typically used with other verbs. However, in the case of Poder, sometimes the following verb is implied. For example:

She can do that, but I can’t.

Ella puede hacer eso, pero yo no puedo.

Also note that the infinitive, poder, is pretty frequently used. Check out this sentence:

I want to be able to do that.

I want poder hacer eso.

Quiero poder hacer eso.

So here we’re using poder to represent the idea of being able to do something. When you do this, you can use poder, along with the phrase that follows it, as a noun in the sentence. Here’s another example, with a preposition right before Poder.

That was because of being able to do this.

Eso era por poder hacer esto.

We can even chain our verbs together in complex sentences. This might be kind of a lot, but see if you can predict how to say this sentence:

I’m going to be able to do something.

Voy a poder hacer algo.

So no matter how the verb Poder is conjugated, you put the infinitive of some other verb after it.

The participle of Poder is podido, which rhymes with some of the other participles we’ve learned such as tenido and sido. Here’s an example:

We haven’t been able to do it.

No lo hemos podido hacer.

Notice that in that sentence, we put lo before the conjugated verb, hemos; it would also be correct to use the word hacerlo and say no hemos podido hacerlo.

Let’s practice all these forms of Poder with a quiz, and then we’ll talk about some other interesting meanings that Poder can take.

We have been able to go that day.

Hemos podido ir ese día.

My friends can do us that favor because you can’t.

Mis amigos nos pueden hacer ese favor porque tú no puedes.

I want to be able to have what you have.

I want poder tener lo que tú tienes.

Quiero poder tener lo que tú tienes.

He said I can leave if I want.

He said que puedo irme si I want.

Dijo que puedo irme si quiero.

But actually we can’t do it.

Pero en verdad no podemos hacerlo.

The boy has been able to help me since she is never able.

El chico me ha podido to help ya que ella nunca puede.

El chico me ha podido ayudar ya que ella nunca puede.

Instead of that, we have to be able to do this.

En vez de eso, tenemos que poder hacer esto.

Now we can have it all.

Ahora sí podemos tenerlo todo.

OK, so as a general rule, Poder tends to refer to ability. You use it to say that someone can or can’t do something, or that they are or aren’t able to do something. But there are some other ways you can use this verb as well.

It’s actually pretty common to translate Poder as “might” instead of “can”. Check out this sentence:

Eso puede estar por aquí.

OK so this is literally “that can be around here”, but the implication is “that might be around here”. We’re using puede to express that it’s possible. Try that yourself with this example:

They(f) might be friends.

Ellas pueden ser amigas.

This might be confusing, because in English we’re used to thinking of “can” and “might” as super different things. But it’s actually generally pretty easy from context to tell which one is meant.

Another way to do this is to use the idiom puede que, literally “it can that”. This is a common way to say that something might be the case. But whenever you do this, the clause after que has to be subjunctive.

Here’s a simple example:

It might be that he’s here.

Puede que esté aquí.

Let’s practice this with a couple more examples.

It might be that they aren’t friends(f).

Puede que no sean amigas.

It might be that he has a good house.

Puede que tenga una buena casa.

All right, now we have to talk about using Poder reflexively. Remember that when we use Hacer reflexively, it can change the meaning from “someone does something” to “something is done”. This is a very common thing to do with Poder, but the meaning is super hard to translate literally. So to discuss this, let’s start by just describing something that happens all the time both in English and in Spanish. Let’s say a 12-year-old kid is misbehaving, maybe drawing with his finger on a stranger’s dirty car window. You tell the kid, “you can’t do that!” The kid pauses, looks up at you, and says “Yes I can, just watch!” and then continues.

OK, so of course every smart alec for the last 100 years has said “yes I can!” when they’re told they can’t do something. The thing is, when you say, “You can’t do that”, what you really mean is “you shouldn’t do that”. Well, you can do this in Spanish as well. So here’s that sentence:

You can’t do that!

¡No puedes hacer eso!

Now of course, it’s not just this 12-year-old kid who “can’t” (or “shouldn’t”) draw on stranger’s cars. Nobody should do it. So if you’re feeling like making a general statement, you might say, “that can’t be done!”

Now, how would you say that in Spanish? What you’re trying to say is that nobody should do it. But in English, you’re using the passive voice, which is tricky to translate into Spanish.

Let’s recall something we did back in Episode 61. Remember how to say this sentence:

That isn’t done.

Eso no se hace.

Literally this means “that doesn’t do itself”, but it’s how you say that something isn’t done.

Well, here’s how you say that something “can’t be done”:

Eso no se puede hacer.

This translates to something absolutely bizarre: “That can’t do itself.” But this is a super common way to say that something shouldn’t be done. And this is what Poder indicates when it’s used reflexively: That something is or isn’t able to be done, or that something is or isn’t permitted.

Here are some more examples.

Those things can’t be done in this place.

Esas cosas no se pueden hacer en este lugar.

Which of all these can be had here?

¿Cuál de todos estos se puede tener aquí?

Let’s practice using Poder reflexively.

What he did can’t be done here.

Lo que él hizo no se puede hacer aquí.

Can that be had here?

¿Se puede tener eso aquí?

In this place those things can be done, but carefully.

En este lugar se pueden hacer esas cosas, pero con cuidado.

Remember that you can always get more practice with this using the free materials at LCSPodcast.com/66. Or if you feel ready, let’s go on to today’s final quiz to practice all our forms of Poder.

She can’t have it.

No lo puede tener.

I told it to the girl.

Se lo I told a la chica.

Se lo dije a la chica.

The problem for which you can’t go is very serious.

El problema por el que no puedes ir es muy serious.

El problema por el que no puedes ir es muy serio.

We can always do you that favor.

Siempre te podemos hacer ese favor.

He might be here on time if he leaves his house.

Puede estar aquí a tiempo si se va de su casa.

It might be that they don’t have it(m).

Puede que no lo tengan.

That job can be had while you do that.

Se puede tener ese trabajo while haces eso.

Se puede tener ese trabajo mientras haces eso.

We have not been able to do it.

No hemos podido hacerlo.

But actually, that can be done.

Pero en verdad eso sí se puede hacer.

They might do that if they are careful.

Pueden hacer eso si tienen cuidado.

I can’t do what you did if we don’t have an agreement.

No puedo hacer lo que hiciste si no tenemos un acuerdo.

It might be that she isn’t present.

Puede que ella no esté.

My friend(f) might be right.

Mi amiga puede tener razón.

All those things can be done without having problems.

Se pueden hacer todas esas cosas without tener problemas.

Se pueden hacer todas esas cosas sin tener problemas.

We haven’t been able to have good ideas these days.

No hemos podido tener buenas ideas estos días.

What are you doing? That can’t be done here.

¿Qué haces? Eso no se puede hacer aquí.

For all those reasons we do not agree.

Por todas esas razones no estamos de acuerdo.

My friends can go there and I want to be able to do it too.

Mis amigos pueden ir ahí y I want poder hacerlo también.

Mis amigos pueden ir ahí y quiero poder hacerlo también.

I can’t do it that way.

No puedo hacerlo de esa forma.

Are you going to be able?

¿Tú vas a poder?

For more practice with all of this, go to LCSPodcast.com/66.

In tomorrow’s episode, we’ll learn the rest of the essential conjugations of Poder.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Michael Agudelo. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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