If you ended up on this page, it’s because you wonder if there is any difference between the use of ho dovuto and dovevo,ho voluto and volevo, sapevo or ho saputo.
In other words, you might have realized that there’s a difference in the meaning of certain verbs if they’re used in the imperfetto or passato prossimo.
In fact, there’s a difference.
Some verbs, such as ‘dovere,’ undergo a change in meaning between the imperfetto and passato prossimo tenses.
These verbs are:
- dovere (dovevo / ho dovuto)
- volere (volevo / ho voluto)
- potere (potevo / ho potuto)
- sapere (sapevo / ho saputo)
- conoscere (conoscevo / ho conosciuto)
Most of these verbs, whose meaning changes depending on the type of past tense we use, are modal verbs, that is to say, volere (to want), potere (can), dovere (to have to/ to need) and sapere (to know how to do something).
Dovere, potere, volere: Imperfetto vs. Passato Prossimo
Generally, we can say that with the modal verbs (volere, potere, dovere), the imperfetto denotes an action that we don’t know whether it happened or not. Instead, the passato prossimo denotes something that happened.
Dovevo vs. Ho Dovuto
- Dovevo andare in banca → this sentence denotes the purpose of going to the bank, yet we don’t know whether the person went or not.
- Sono dovuta andare in banca (stamattina) → the person went to the bank
Volevo vs. Ho Voluto
- Non volevo andare a lavoro→ we don’t know whether the person went to work or not
- Ho voluto comprare una macchina nuova→ the person bought a car
- Volevo comprare una macchina nuova → we don’t know whether the person bought the car
- Volevo chiamarti ieri sera (I wanted to call you last night) – the use of the imperfetto here means that I had the intention of calling you, but we don’t know whether I did it or not.
- Ho voluto chiamarti ieri sera perché – it means I called you, why…
VOLEVO in polite requests
A special mention goes to volere
Infact, volere in the imperfetto is also used to make a kind request
- Volevo chiederti un’informazione → I wanted to ask you something
- Volevo chiederti un favore → I wanted to ask you a favor
Potevo vs. Ho Potuto
- Stanotte non potevo dormire → it was hard for the person to sleep, we don’t know whether the person managed to sleep or not
- Stanotte ho potuto dormire → I could not sleep, I did not sleep
Sapevo vs. Ho saputo
Sapere in the imperfect means “essere a conoscenza di qualcosa = to be aware of something”.
- Sapevi che Marta ha avuto un bambino → Did you know Marta had a baby?
- Non sapevo che fossi sposato → I didn’t know you were married
Sapere in the passato prossimo means to learn something from someone else
- Hai saputo che Lucia ha avuto un figlio → Someone told me Lucia had a baby
Conoscevo vs. Ho conosciuto
Although it’s not a modal verb, another verb that changes its meaning is the verb conoscere.
Conoscere in the imperfetto means to know someone
- Quando andavo a scuola, già conoscevo mio marito → I knew my husband from my school years
Conoscere in the passato prossimo means to meet someone for the first time
- Ho conosciuto mio marito a una partita di calcio → I met my husband at soccer match
Do you need to refresh the modal verbs in Italian? Learn from this post!