Riuscire and Potere. The Difference.

In my experience as an Italian language teacher, students often struggle with the verb riuscire because of its widespread use in informal Italian. 

The reason is that the Italian verbs potere and riuscire are both frequently used in English with “can” and so, it’s hard to distinguish them in Italian.  

However, using one or the other has a significant impact on the meaning and message we want to convey; therefore, it’s critical to understand how to use riuscire and how it differs from potere.

Riuscire vs. Potere

Potere expresses the ability or inability to do something when it depends on us, other people, or external circumstances.

Non posso farlo!I can’t do it (because of an external circumstance or because of my own wishes).

Riuscire expresses the ability or inability to do something when it depends on our physical or mental capacity to do something, so on internal circumstances. 

Non riesco a farlo!I can’t do it (I can’t do it because I don’t have the mental or physical capacity to do it. Maybe I can’t climb to the top of a mountain because I’m not physically fit or I have vertigo).

Let’s take a look at some more examples.

Potere -external circumstances

Non posso bere alcoolI can’t drink alcohol because, for example, I’m underage or I’m pregnant (external circumstance)
Non posso mangiare frutti di mareI can’t have seafood, maybe because I’m allergic (external circumstance, I didn’t choose it)
Non posso dirloI can’t say it because I’ve been asked to keep a secret (external circumstance)

Riuscire (a) internal circumstances

Non riesco a bereI can’t drink because maybe I don’t like it or I’m dizzy (internal circumstance)
Non riesco a mangiare frutti di mareI can’t eat seafood, maybe because it disgusts me (internal circumstance)
Non riesco a dirloI can’t say it because it’s something emotionally straining for me (internal circumstance)

So, when should ‘riuscire’ be used instead of potere?

Sometimes it’s not super easy to guess, but you should first learn to watch for the patterns when reading or listening to Italian. Then you should try to copy the patterns. 

However, it’s interesting to note that, because of the nature of the language, certain verbs have a propensity to use riuscire, especially those verbs that imply an internal mental or physical capacity.

Examples:

Non riesco a capireI can’t understand
Non riesco a guardare dalla finestraI can’t look out of the window (maybe because I have vertigo)
Non riesco a ricordareI can’t remember
Non riesco a camminare così veloceI can’t walk so fast (maybe because I have a sore leg)
Non riesco a parlare di fronte a un grande pubblicoI can’t do public speaking (maybe because I’m shy)

Other meanings of riuscire 

In addition, the confusion between riuscire and potere is more evident just when they’re used in their negative form. In contrast, when riuscire is used in its positive form, it’s mainly used with the meaning of “able to do, to manage, or to succeed.”

For example

  • Sono riuscita a passare l’esame al prima – I was able to pass the exam 
How to conjugate riuscire

Riuscire is a combination of ri+uscire, so, even though the meaning is different from “uscire”, it follows the same irregular conjugation of uscire, in all the tenses and forms.

SubjectItalian Present Tense
ioriesco
turiesci
lui/leiriesce
noiriusciamo
voiriuscite
lororiescono
riuscire conjugation in the present tense

As for the passato prossimo, riuscire uses the essere auxiliary.

SubjectItalian Passato Prossimo
iosono riuscito/a
tusei riuscito/a
lui/leiè riuscito/a
noisiamo riusciti/e
voisiete riusciti/e
lorosono riusciti/e
‘riuscire’ conjugation in the passato prossimo

In addition, remember to use riuscire with the following pattern: riuscire + a + infinitive. 

  • Sono riuscito a correre per 60 minuti! – I was able to run for 60 minutes!
  • Non sono riuscito a finire i compiti! – I count’t finish my homework 

For intermediate learners

If your level of Italian is intermediate or higher, you might also delve into this: riuscire is one of those verbs that triggers the use of the particle “ci“, just like pensare or credere.

Why? Because riuscire triggers the use of the pattern “a+infinitive“, which we can be replaced by “ci”.

Example:

Sei riuscito a capire?Did you manage to understand?
Sì, ci sono riuscito.Yes, I managed to (understand).
Sei riuscito a superare l’esame?Did you manage to pass the exam?
Sì, ci sono riuscito.Yes, I managed to (pass the exam).

About the Author

Serena Capilli

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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