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Portuguese Verbs Poder vs. Conseguir – How to Tell One from the Other

It’s not always easy for Portuguese language learners to discern between the verbs poder and conseguir. That’s, for example, the case for native speakers of English where the verb can semantically encompasses both.

So, how do we know when to use poder and conseguir?

The Portuguese verbs poder and conseguir are used to express that something can happen (or not). Thus, the concept of “possibility” is central to both. However, while poder relates to the mere possibility for something to happen, conseguir suggests that such possibility hinges on the ability of someone overcoming a hurdle of some kind.

In other words, conseguir implies that someone is undertaking some sort of challenge in order to fulfill a latent possibility.  

For the most part, the context makes it clear as to whether we should be using poder or conseguir. There are, nonetheless, a few situations where poder and conseguir are pratically interchangeable.

Let’s look at some concrete examples.

When to use poder

Let’s take a brief look at what the irregular* verb poder looks like when conjugated in the present and past simple tenses  

Present simplePreterite
Pretérito perfeito
Imperfect
Pretérito imperfeito
Eupossopudepodia
Tupodespudestepodias
Ele, elapodepodepodia
Nóspodemospudemospodíamos
Vocêspodempuderampodiam
Eles, elaspodempuderampodiam
past participlepodido
present participle
gerúndio
podendo

* Like poder, there are a few other irregular ones among the most frequently used verbs overall. Here’s a reading that will most likely add to your fluency: Portuguese Must-Know Irregular Verbs.

Possibility

We use poder to say that something may or may not happen, or that something is possible or not:

Eles podem chegar a qualquer momento.
They could come anytime soon.

As previsões do tempo para amanhã são  incertas, pode chover.
The weather forecast for tomorrow is uncertain, it could rain.

Não pode ser verdade. Ele está a mentir.
It can’t be true. He’s lying.

Permission

We also use poder to make it clear that something is either allowed or forbidden:

Podemos estacionar o carro aqui.
We can park the car here.

Não podes fumar dentro do restaurante!
You can’t smoke inside the restaurant!

Suggestion

We use poder to suggest things to do in the immediate future. In that case, we often use the imperfect tense: 

Podíamos ir ao cinema mais logo, o que achas?
We could go to the cinema later on, what do you think?

When to use conseguir

Here’s the regular * verb conseguir conjugated in the present and past simple tenses:

Present simplePreterite
Pretérito perfeito
Imperfect
Pretérito imperfeito
Euconsigoconseguiconseguia
Tuconseguesconseguisteconseguias
Ele, elaconsegueconseguiuconseguia
Nósconseguimosconseguimosconseguimos
Vocêsconseguemconseguiramconseguiam
Eles, elasconseguemconseguiramconseguiam
past participleconseguido
present participle
gerúndio
conseguindo

* Conseguir belongs to the 3-group of regular verbs whose infinitive form ends in –ir.
And btw, read the following article in case you’re not sure about when to use the perfect or imperfect past tense: Portuguese Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense: Know When to Use Which.

Conditional possibility

We also use the verb conseguir to express that something is possible or not possible. 

However, conseguir  presupposes that someone must overcome a challenge of some sort to fulfill a certain possibility. In other words, something might happen only if someone has the ability to make it happen.

In English, whenever it sounds right to either say be able to or manage to as an alternative to can, chances are that we want to say conseguir in Portuguese. 

Here’re a few examples:

Ele tem só 10 meses e já consegue andar!
He’s only 10 months old and he’s already able to walk!

Não consegui passar no exame.
I didn’t manage to pass the exam.

A Isabel tem 65 anos e ainda consegue fazer a espargata.
Isabel is 65 and she’s still able to perform the splits.

Conseguir vs. poder

Now, let me illustrate how conseguir and poder can mean different things when used in the same context: 

Eu consigo suster a respiração por mais de 3 minutos. Não acreditam? Posso fazer isso agora se vocês quiserem.
I can hold my breath for more than 3 minutes. Don’t you believe it? I can do it now if you wish.

A Sara já consegue executar 25 sonatas de Chopin e está pronta para dar concertos. Agora já podemos assistir a um concerto dela.
Sara can already play 25 sonatas by Chopin and she’s ready to perform. We can finally go to one of her concerts. 

As you see in the examples above, conseguir directly refers to the skill or the ability to perform something, whereas poder refers to the possibility enabled by that same ability – something can happen (poder) only because someone makes it possible (conseguir).

When it is practically the same

In some contexts, the difference between using poder or conseguir is subtle or even not perceived at all in practice. 

One such context is when someone asks someone else if they can do or help with something: 

Podes dar-me uma mão?
Consegues dar-me uma mão?
Can you give me a hand?

Podes vir cá hoje?
Consegues vir cá hoje?
Can you come by today?

Hoje posso chegar a casa mais cedo para te ajudar a fazer o jantar.
Hoje consigo chegar a casa mais cedo para te ajudar a fazer o jantar. 
Today I can come home earlier to help you out with dinner.

Reading suggestions! Here’re a few other readings concerning Portuguese verbs that might interest you:

1. Portuguese Reflexive Verbs and Reflexive Pronoun Placement
2. Portuguese Modal Verbs Equivalent to Must, May, Could, Should, and the Like
3. The Portuguese Verb “Dar”: Usage and Idiomatic Expressions

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