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I already anticipate that part of my problem is that I'm trying to literally translate, which I know I shouldn't (but...). I'm confused:

Juan sabe nadar.

I read that this means "Juan knows how to swim." My confusion is this: how does the spanish listener/speaker understand the implied how to portion of this sentence? In my beginning Spanish brain, I read this sentence as "Juan knows swim." If sabe means knows, and nadar means to swim, in what way is the how to part implied?

I know I'm overthinking this, but it's a true stumbling block when I try to form cogent sentences.

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They know it in the same way that in English the need to do something is implied:

John knows to swim (when he falls overboard).

There is a default interpretation that implies that he "has to", and any deviation requires other wording.

In Spanish, using a verb as the object of saber expresses an ability, not a knowledge per se:

Juan sabe nadar
John is capable of swimming

This is basically the same meaning as poder except that saber implies some mental mechanics at work in doing the activity, whereas poder lacks that implication. Accordingly, inanimate nouns are rarely the subject of saber (except when it means to taste [like]).

If you want to express that he knows the mechanics/progresses by which something is done, that is, deviating from the standard interpretation, you'll need to specify with extra words:

Juan sabe cómo nadar
John knows how to swim (but may or may not be capable of swimming himself)

The grammar of the last one is actually rather complicated if you try to analyze it too far, but it's quite easy to use in practice so don't shy away from it. Also in practice, you'll rarely be misunderstood if you include the cómo, as generally in conversation, if someone knows how to do something, there's a strong implication that they are capable of doing it too.

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  • To be clear when I say the grammar is complicated, I mean that the nadar is actually a personal infinitive that has an implied, and so the "to swim" of English is not directly related to the infinitive, even though superficially it looks like a nice 1-to-1 correspondence. – user0721090601 Jun 17 '15 at 3:44
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Even though it's not a literal translation I would say:

Juan sabe nadar = Juan can swim

and

Juan sabe cómo nadar = Juan knows how to swim

The latter implies more of a theoretical knowledge of the way something is done, the latter a practical one.

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