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What’s the Difference Between “Poder” and “Conseguir” in Portuguese?

 

woman studies the difference between poder and conseguir in Portuguese

 

This is a highly specialized question. If you’re here, you really want to know the difference between “poder” and “conseguir” in Portuguese.

I have two pieces of news for you.

You know the drill, good one, bad one.

The good one is that there is only one point in common — really in common — between those two verbs.

The bad one is that both of them have several meanings. But you can get them from context… (that’s the good one).

The problem usually arises when people are told that both verbs translate as “can, be able to.”

That’s not wrong — but it’s not 100% correct either.

Shall we take a look at some examples that might dispel your doubts and answer your questions?

Using “Conseguir” in Portuguese

The general meaning here is “to obtain.”

When you’re really trying to do something or looking forward to doing something and then you reach your goal, you can use this verb.

Examples:

  • Depois de muita luta, o time conseguiu a vitória. After much struggle, the team got the victory.
  • Eu tentei aprender russo, mas não consegui encontrar um professor adequado. I tried to learn Russian, but I couldn’t find a suitable teacher.

Another meaning it has is “get someone willing to pay the amount of money you are asking for.”

I know, I know. That’s too specific.

But you wanted to know the difference between those verbs, didn’t you?

Examples:

  • Não sei se posso conseguir alguém para pagar trezentos dólares por esse computador. É muito velho. I don’t think I can get someone to pay $300 for this computer. It’s too old.
  • Se vendesse por duzentos, eu poderia conseguir alguém com certeza. If you would sell it for $200, I could certainly get someone.

And you can see that in the second example I used both “poder” and “conseguir.”

There’s a clear difference in English between “being able to do something” and “managing to do something.”

The latter meaning is also covered by this verb.

Example:

  • Ele dirigia muito rápido, mas conseguiu parar o carro antes que fosse tarde demais. He was driving very fast but he managed to stop the car before it was too late.

Also, when you want to talk about getting good grades at school that’s the verb you want to use.

Example:

  • Estudei muito, então consegui notas muito boas. I studied a lot, so I got very good grades.

Using “Poder” in Portuguese.

Buckle up, friend.

We are entering very dangerous territory here.

“Poder” can be used to express a wide array of meanings in Portuguese.

And bear in mind — although hypothetically there’s a big overlap between those two verbs, in only one situation do they really overlap.

I’ll point out which one it is when we get to it.

Right now, we have a lot of work to do.

I once watched a lecture by Noam Chomsky. He started by saying something along the lines of “my country has been accused of lying. It can’t be accused of it. If you accuse it of lying you suppose it can say the truth.”

I don’t want to discuss the merit of this statement. But I would like to point out that the last sentence (… It can say the truth) would translate as “ele pode dizer a verdade.”

Being an English speaker, you probably understand the context here.

But let me be clear:

You can use “poder” when you want to say that someone has the faculty or the possibility of doing something. They’re able to do it.

  • Me desculpe, não posso te dizer a verdade agorinha. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you the truth right now.

Another instance where you can use “poder” is when you want to say someone has the physical — or moral— strength to do something.

Example:

  • Posso levanter cem quilos. I can lift 100 kg.

When you mean that someone is authorized to do something, that’s the verb to use.

  • Menores de idade não podem frequentar cassinos. Underage people cannot go to casinos.

Let’s say you’ve had a very rough day. Your boss went crazy, your clients behaved like crazy, even your dog acted up… You simply don’t feel like doing anything. You don’t have the energy.

So you would probably say something like:

  • Não posso estudar hoje, estou morta de cansada (morto de cansado as a man). I can’t study today, I’m dead tired.

… which would be a pity.

Because you’re responsible for watching the dog that needs care. (Follow my lead, this is a story to help you memorize the meanings.)

If you told me that you’re so tired couldn’t do anything, then I would reply by saying:

  • Se você não o vigiar, o cachorro pode fugir. If you don’t watch it, the dog may run away.

And here I chose to use “may” to translate “poder.”

It implies two meanings:

  • There is a possibility that the dog will run away.
  • Because the dog will have the chance, it can escape.

And this is the only situation where “conseguir” could be used with almost the same meaning.

I say almost because “conseguir” leans toward meaning (2).

“Poder,” on the other hand, would give us both meanings, and only context would tell us which one was stronger.

Now, still following up on that story…

So, you want to go out somewhere with me. Or maybe, you’re having a lesson with me and want me to wait a couple of minutes.

You want to ask me whether I am patient enough to wait or if I have the necessary “inner quality” to do so.

Then you say:

  • Pode esperar só um minuto? Can you wait just a minute?

I would probably answer, “posso sim.”

Now, let’s drop the story.

And let’s pick up yet another story.

You know when you really know what you have to do but someone else keeps telling how you have to do it? Always meddling with what you have to do? Being condescending?

You look back at this person and say:

  • Eu posso dizer isso. Venho fazendo isso há vinte anos. I can say that. I’ve been doing that for twenty years.

And here, you would be implying, “I have the moral authority to do it. And I have a very good reason to do so.”

If you can tolerate — physically, emotionally, morally — something, that’s the verb you use, too.

Example:

  • Não posso ver sangue. Fico zonzo fácil demais. I can’t see blood. I get dizzy too easily.

The second to last the meaning of the list is: to have the opportunity or occasion to do something.

Example:

  • A professora faltou à aula ontem. Eu não pude falar com ela. The teacher missed class yesterday. I couldn’t speak with her.

And the last very common meaning — and my favorite — is:

Being able to control someone.

  • Não posso contigo. I can’t with you.

(It’s not lost on me that many people don’t like this “I can’t with” to express that you can’t deal with something. In Portuguese, it’s used as a sign of exasperation. You’re really tired. You don’t want to deal with that anymore. So, you just admit that you can’t control this person — or situation.)

Thus, colega, these were the very common meanings for the verbs “poder” and “conseguir” in Portuguese.

In most situations, they cannot be used interchangeably without changing the meaning heavily.

Let’s practice!

I’m going to give you a quick story and I would like to know how you’d express that in Portuguese.

Mary was going to be late for work. She woke up later than usual, burned her toasts, and lost her keys. On top of that, when she was going out, she saw the bus was leaving. She ran after it but couldn’t catch it.

How would you say, “she couldn’t get the bus”?

Also, you can write a sentence with “poder” and another with “conseguir” in the comments section below.


For more on Portuguese grammar, head over to our content-rich grammar section!

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