The Italian Modal Verbs Explained for Beginners
What is the Difference Between the Italian Modal Verbs and Other Types of Verbs?
When your teacher (or your book) is telling you this is a modal verb, there’s no need to be confused. Saying a verb a is “modal” is just a label to remind you that, in Italian, there are three (modal) verbs that have a lot in common and are kind of different from the other verbs.
voglio – I want
posso – I can
devo – I have to, I need, I must
What do they have in common? They are simply followed by an infinitive verb*.
An infinitive verb is a base form of any verb, the way you look it up in a dictionary.
So, we can say that modal verbs are always followed by infinitive verbs.
- voglio vivere in Italia – I want to live in Italy
- posso aprire la port? – Can I open the window?
- devo andare – I must go
A typical mistake I hear from beginner Italian learners is using a conjugated verb after a modal verb, like in
- voglio vado – I want I go (this is WRONG)
- voglio andare – I want to go (this is correct!)
How to Conjugate an VOLERE / POTERE / DOVERE in Present Tense?
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 for permission, making requests, and offers, and so forth.
As we just said, modal verbs have in common that they are always followed by an infinitive. But, something else they have in common is that they are irregular. It means they don’t follow a regular conjugation pattern and that you’ll need to memorize them.
It’s very important to memorize the conjugations of modal verbs, because, as you can imagine, they are high-frequency verbs.
This is the conjugation of the modal verbs in the present tense
|VOLERE (want, wish)||POTERE (can, may)||DOVERE (need, have to, must)|
- 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…
How to Use the Verb 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 a popular Italian verb that has three possible translations into English:
- I must
- I have to
- I need to
I know that saying I must in English is totally different from saying I need to. However, Italian doesn’t mark this difference. The only way to convey the obligatoriness that the verb must entail in English is to pronounce devo in a more emphatic way.
- devo studiare – I need to study
- DEVO studiare – I must study
So, remember that there’s no formal difference between “I must,” “I need,” and “I have to” in Italian. They can all be translated with the verb dovere.
It’s good to know that…
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 does not have a single translation into 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 out how to use dovere, avere bisogno and servire in Italian.
How to Use the Verb 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.
- Puoi cucinare? – Can you cook? (I want you to cook)
- Sai cucinare? – Can you cook? (Do you know how to cook?)
How to Use the Verb VOLERE
Volere: to want, to wish
- Voglio mangiare giapponese – I want to eat Japanese
- Voglio il sushi e la tempura – I want sushi and tempura
Do you want to practice your Italian modal verbs? Use these drills!
The Modal Verbs with the Passato Prossimo
Conjugating modal verbs with the passato prossimo (and other compound tenses*) needs a special construction.
A compound tense is a verb resulting from the combination of an auxiliary verb and a past participle (e.g. past conditional, compound future, past perfect, etc..)
How to Conjugate an VOLERE / POTERE / DOVERE in Passato Prossimo?
If you have already learned the passato prossimo (the main past tense in Italian), you know that it’s a combination of an auxiliary and a past participle (e.g. ho parlato = I spoke, I’ve spoken).
But, what is the correct auxiliary to use when you want to say
- I wanted (past of “volere”)
- I could (past of “potete”)
- I had to or I needed (past of “dovere”)
Well, all of these verbs can use both “essere” and “avere” as auxiliary verbs, so you can have
- ho voluto or sono voluto/a
- ho potuto or sono potuto/a
- ho dovuto or sono dovuto/a
The helping verb (or auxiliary) depends on the infinite verb that follows our modal verb.
If you want to say in Italian – I wanted to eat, you need to chose the correct auxiliary of the verb “mangiare = to eat“, which is avere.
So, I wanted to eat goes to “ho voluto mangiare”
However, if you wanted to say – I wanted to go, you’d need to choose the correct auxiliary of the verb “andare = to go“, which is essere.
- Sono voluta andare – I wanted to go
If you wanted to say – voglio mangiare – in the past, the result would be:
The same rule applies for dovere and potere, of course.
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, as a resultthe auxiliary of dovere is avere.
- Non ho potuto preparare la cena – I 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 volereagree with the gender and number of the subject.
- Sono dovuta andare via – I had to leave (dovuta, feminine singular).
- Ci siamo alzati tardi – we got up late (alzati, masculine plural)
- Non siamo potuti venire – we could not come (potuti, masculine plural)
How to Use the Modal Verbs with the Pronouns
Modal verbs have something else in common. The position of pronouns*. The pronouns are parts of the sentences, like it, her, him, etc.
If you don’t understand well the idea of pronouns in Italian, I encourage you to visit this page:
What’s the thing with pronouns and modal verbs in Italian?
Well, you know that usually a pronoun precedes a verb in Italian, unlike in English.
We say, “lo compro” which is “I it buy” and NOT compro lo.
But with modal verbs we can put the pronouns both before the modal verb and also at the back of the infinitive verb that follows the modal verb.
- Voglio comprarlo – I want to buy it [before the modal verb]
- Lo voglio comprare – I want to buy it
Both ways are correct, interchangeable and equally used in spoken Italian.
There are three modal verbs in Italian.
They are volere, potere, and dovere. And we call them modal verbs to remind us that they are different from the majority of other verbs in Italian, because:
- they are irregular.
- they are always followed by an infinitive verb.
- they can use both essere and avere as auxiliaries in compound tenses, like the passato prossimo
- when they come in conjunction with a pronoun, the pronoun can either precede the modal verb or be joined onto the end of the infinite that follow the modal verb.
The imperfetto of modals verbs
If this is easy for you, you might be interested in learning about the difference of usage of the modal verbs between the passato prossimo and the imperfetto.
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