This week I want to unravel the mystery in the usage of three different Italian verbs which have a similar translation into English, and because of this are, sometimes, tricky to use.
I am talking about the verbs dovere – avere bisogno di – servire.
They all express a need. Nevertheless, they can’t be used indifferently to say in Italian I need or I must. Hence, you need to know when it is correct to use one or another.
What is the difference between dovere, avere bisogno and servire?
Dovere is a verb with different meanings.
Obligation – I must – I need – I have to
When you must, need or have to do something, you should opt for the verb dovere. An infinite (non-conjugated) verb always follows dovere in this instance.
uscirein anticipio dall’ufficio– I need to get off work earlier
dovuto cancellarela riunioneperché stavomale – I had to cancel the meeting because I was sick
Responsability – I am supposed to
You can use dovere when in English you would you “I am supposed to”.
- Devo finire la relazione entro venerdì – I am supposed to finish the paper by Friday
Use dovere in the imperfect tense when you want to express that something was supposed to happen but didn’t for whatever reason.
- Dovevo partire per il mare ieri, ma non ho potuto – I was supposed to leave for the sea tomorrow, but I couldn’t
How do you know when
Warning or suggestion – I should, you should, etc…
The conditional of dovere is used to give a warning or a suggestion in Italian
- Se vai a Roma, dovresti visitare il Giardino degli aranci – If you go to Rome, you should visit Il Giardino degli Aranci
AVERE BISOGNO DI
That being said, Italian has another common verb expressing a need, which is the verb avere bisogno di (literally: to have the need of)
No need to say I have listened to this verb misused countless times. Why so?
One is driven to think that avere bisogno dicorresponds to the English to need. It is…and it is not.
When can you use avere bisogno di instead dovere?
When you need something
- Ho bisogno di un nuova macchina – I need a new car
When you need to do something with the purpose of doing something else
- Ho bisogno di fare una bella vacanza in una spa per rimettermi in forma – I need a to take a vacation at spa to get back in shape
With the pronouns me/te/lui/lei/noi/voi/loro
- Hai bisogno di me? – Do you need me?
And, it is not over, as wordy as they are, Italians have another way to express a need which implies the verb servire. The use of servire does not vary from the one of avere
If you want to say that you need a thing, you can say
- Mi serve + singular noun → mi serve una mozzarella di bufala per fare la pizza napoletana – I need a bufala mozzarella to make a Neapolitan pizza
- Mi servono + plural nouns → mi servono due uova per fare la torta – I need two eggs to make the cake
As you might have noticed, the verb, servire follows the same pattern as the impersonal verb
Mi serve / servono
Ti serve..? servono…?
Gli serve / le serve / gli servono/le servono
Ci serve / ci servono
Vi serve… ? / vi servono…?
Gli serve/ gli servono
Some tips and trick to use the verbs dovere and avere bisogno di correctly in Italian
- An infinite verb always follows dovere (when expressing a need)
- A noun always follows servire
- A noun can follow avere
bisognodi can be used with pronouns me – te – lui– lei – noi– voi– loro
bisognodi can be followed by an infinite verb when it means that you need to do something in order to do something else
I need to go → devo andare – it’s is CORRECT!
I need to go → ho bisogno di andare – it’s WRONG!
I need a hot bath to freshen up → ho bisogno di un bagno caldo per ricaricarmi – it’s CORRECT
An extra common expression expressing a need is…
Another common verb expressing a need or an obligation for some action to be performed is the strictly impersonal verb bisogna.
Bisogna exists just in simple tenses (simple future, simple conditional, etc..) and is used only in the third person singular. An infinite verb always follows it when the subject is not identified.
- Bisogna pagare il conto prima di ordinare il caffe – it is necessary to pay the bill before ordering the coffee
If the subject is determined, bisogna is followed by che + subjunctive
- Bisogna che mio figlio studi di più – It is necessary that my son study more
Serena is a proud polyglot, teacher and language expert. After learning 8+ foreign languages and working long hours a job she was not born for, she decided she urged a significant life change. She is now combining what she loves doing with what she is good at, helping people to learn Italian online. She has been sharing her love for Italy and the Bella Lingua across the world for the last four years. Her goal is helping enthusiastic humans to transform Italian Language Learning into a habit in their lives.