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 dovereavere bisogno diservire.

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.

  • Devo uscire in anticipio dall’ufficioI need to get off work earlier
  • Ho dovuto cancellare la riunione perché stavo male – 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 dovere implies an obligation or a responsibility? Well, it depends on the voice intonation.
Devo andare means both I must go, and I am supposed to go. Thus, pay attention to the intonation and gestures.

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


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 bisogno di.

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 piacere. Servire is conjugated just in the third person singular or plural and it is preceded by an indirect object pronoun.

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 bisogno di  
  • Avere bisogno di can be used with pronouns me – te – lui – lei – noivoi – loro
  • Avere bisogno di can be followed by an infinite verb when it means that you need to do something in order to do something else

To recap:

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