A brief guide to using the Italian modal verbs (volere, dovere, potere)

In Italian, as in most languages, there is a number of irregular verbs that have to be learned by heart. Some of these are highly frequent like the Italian modal verbs volere,  potere, dovere.

conjugation of the present tense of VOLRE, POTERE, DOVERE

The Italian modal verbs dovere, potere and volere, respectively express necessity, possibility or a wish (AKA if you must do something, if you can do something or if you want to do something). These verbs are also used to do things like asking permission, making requests and offers and so forth.

Dovere, potere and volere are known as “modal verbs“.

The most important rule about the Italian modals verbs is that, they always precede the infinitive verb of another verb. We can also put it differently and say that the modal verbs are always followed by a non- conjugated verb (AKA infinitive).  

Examples
  • Voglio andare al supermercato (modal verb + infinitive + object) – I want to go to the grocery. store
  • Devo comprare della cioccolata (modal verb + infinitive + object) – I need to buy some chocolate
  • Non posso aspettarti (modal verb + infinitive ) –  I can’t wait for you

 

Let’s see now how to use the Italian modal verbs in-depth…

DOVERE

Dovere + infinitive:  must, to have to, to need to 

  • Devo andare in palestra – I must (need, have to) go to the gym

Dovere is also used as a non-modal verb. In this case dovere has a different meaning and a noun follows it (not an infinitive verb) .

Dovere + noun: to owe 

  • Ti devo 5 euro per la piazza – I owe you 5 euros for the pizza

Dovere has not a single translation in English. When English uses the verbs need, should, must, have to , Italian uses dovere. To find out how to correctly use dovere in Italian, check how to use dovere, avere  bisogno and servire in Italian.

POTERE

Potere means can or may when asking for permission or being allowed (or not allowed) to do something.

  • Posso uscire un momento?Can I leave for a second?
  • I bambini non possono guardare la tv di sera tardi Children are not allowed to watch TV late

Potere does not express the ability to do something, like in English. 

Instead, in Italian, you should use the verb “sapere” to say that you can do something. 

  • So cantare – I can sing 
  • Sai cucinare? –  Can you cook?
  • Sapete parlare russo? – Can you guys speak Russian?

Avoid the typical mistake of using potere in these types of sentences. If you ask someone – puoi cucinare? – you are actually requesting him or her to cook.

VOLERE

Volere: to want, to wish

  • Voglio mangiare giapponese I want  to eat Japanese
  • Voglio il shushi e la tempura – I want sushi and tempura

Do you want to practice your Italian modal verbs? Use these drills! 

Italian modal verbs in compound tenses

A compound tense is a verb resulting from the combination of an auxiliary verb and a past participle (e.g. condizionale passato, passato prossimo, futuro anteriore, congiuntivo passato, etc..)

Conjugating modal verbs in the passato prossimo (and other compound tenses) needs a special construction.

The helping verb (or auxiliary) does not depend on the modal verbs, but on the infinite verbs following. 

If you want to say in the past – voglio uscire – in order to choose the correct helping verb  you need to take into consideration the second verb (the infinitive one), that is to say – uscire. 

As you know, the helping verb of uscire is essere, so that, you will use essere as an auxiliary.

  • Sono voluta uscire  – I wanted to leave

If you wanted to say – voglio mangiare – in the past, the result would be:

  • Ho dovuto mangiare –  I wanted to eat

The usage of the auxiliary avere depends on the fact that the verb mangiare use avere as a helping verb.

Let’s see another example…

  • Ho dovuto preparare la cena I had to prepare the dinner

Preparare is one of those verbs using avere as a helping verb, for such reason the auxiliary of dovere is avere.

  • Non ho potuto preparare la cenaI could not prepare the dinner
  • Non sono potuta andare a pranzo – I could not go to the lunch

Note that if the auxiliary preceding the modal verb is essere, the past participle of the verbs dovere, potere and volere agree with the gender and number of the subject. 

  • Sono dovuta andare viaI had to leave  (dovuta , feminine singular)
  • Ci siamo alzati tardi – we got up late  (alzati, masculine plural)
  • Non siamo potuti venirewe could not come (potuti, masculine plural)

Any questions? Leave a comment below!