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 verbs in English can, may, have to or to want or must. 




 

The verbs dovere, potere and volere, respectively express necessity, a possibility or a wish (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“. In fact, the three of them belong to the same category of verbs, because they work in the same way.

The most important rule of the modals verbs is that they always precede the infinitive verb of another verb. It means that you never need to conjugate the verb following a modal verb, which makes things easier, right? 

  • voglio andare al supermercato (modal verb + infinitive + object) – I want to go to the groceries 
  • devo comprare la 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 anon-modal verb, meaning that it is not followed by a verb, but a noun, like in the following example: 

Dovere + object: 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: 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 posso guardare la tv di sera tardi Children are not allowed to watch TV late

Potere does not express the ability to do something, like English. In Italian, is the verb SAPERE (to know) that does it:

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

 

Modal verb and compound tenses

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

Since each modal verb is followed by an infinitive verb (Posso entrare? Voglio mangiare!), when it comes to conjugating the modal verb you always need to choose the correct auxiliary (essere or avere) of the infinitive verb following the modal verbs, like the following example:

  • Sono dovuta uscire  – I had to leave

Uscire is a verb of motion that in compound tenses take essere as a helping verb (or auxiliary), for such reason the auxiliary of dovere is essere.

Let’s see another example…

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

Preparare is a transitive verb taking 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 agrees 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)