The verb riuscire (and how it is different from potere)
In my experience as an Italian language teacher, students often struggle with the verb riuscire because of its widespread use in informal Italian.
The reason is that the Italian verbs potere and riuscire are both frequently used in English with “can” and so, it’s hard to distinguish them in Italian.
However, using one or the other has a significant impact on the meaning and message we want to convey; therefore, it’s critical to understand how to use riuscire and how it differs from potere.
The difference, in short,
Potere expresses the ability or inability to do something when it depends on us, other people, or external circumstances.
- Non posso farlo! – I can’t do it (because of an external circumstance or because of my own wishes).
Riuscire expresses the ability or inability to do something when it depends on our physical or mental capacity to do something, so on internal circumstances.
- Non riesco a farlo! – I can’t do it (I can’t do it, because I don’t have the mental or physical capacity to do it. Maybe I can’t climb the top of a mountain because I’m not physically fit or I have vertigo).
Let’s take a look at some more examples.
Potere – external circumstances
- Non posso bere alcool – I can’t drink, because, for example, I’m underage or I’m pregnant (external circumstance)
- Non posso mangiare frutti di mare – I can’t have seafood, maybe because I’m allergic (external circumstance, I didn’t choose it)
- Non posso dirlo – I can’t say because I’ve been asked to keep a secret (external circumstance)
Riuscire (a) – internal circumstances
- Non riesco a bere – I can’t drink, because maybe I don’t like it or I’m dizzy (internal circumstance)
- Non riesco a mangiare frutti di mare – maybe because it disgusts me (internal circumstance)
- Non riesco a dirlo – I can’t say because it’s something emotionally straining for me (internal circumstance)
So, when should riuscire be used instead of potere?
Sometimes it’s not super easy to guess, but you should first learn to watch for the patterns when reading or listening to Italian. Then you should try to copy the patterns.
However, it’s interesting to note that, because of the nature of the language, certain verbs have a propensity to use riuscire, especially those verbs that imply an internal mental or physical capacity. For example,
- Non riesco a capire – I can’t understand
- Non riesco a guardare dalla finestra – I can’t look out of the window (maybe because I have vertigo)
- Non riesco a ricordare – I can’t remember
- Non riesco a camminare così veloce – I can’t walk so fast (maybe because I have a sore leg)
- Non riesco a parlare di fronte a un grande pubblico – I can’t do public speaking (maybe because I’m shy)
Other meanings of riuscire
In addition, the confusion between riuscire and potere is more evident just when they’re used in their negative form. In contrast, when riuscire is used in its positive form, it’s mainly used with the meaning of “able to do, to manage, or to succeed.”
- Sono riuscita a passare l’esame al prima – I was able to pass the exam
How to conjugate riuscire
Riuscire is a combination of ri+uscire, so, even though the meaning is different from “uscire”, it follows the same irregular conjugation of uscire, in all the tenses and forms.
As for the passato prossimo, riuscire uses the “essere auxiliary.”
The present tense
- io riesco
- tu riesci
- lui riesce
- noi riusciamo
- voi riuscite
- loro riescono
The passato prossimo
- io sono riuscito/a
- tu sei riuscito/a
- lui è riuscito
- lei è riuscita
- noi siamo riusciti/e
- voi siete riusciti/e
- loro sono riusciti/e
In addition, remember to use riuscire with the following pattern: riuscire + a + infinitive.
- Sono riuscito a correre per 60 minuti! – I was able to run for 60 minutes!
- Non sono riuscito a finire i compiti! – I count’t finish my homework
For intermediate learners
If your level of Italian is intermediate or higher, you might also delve into this: riuscire is one of those verbs that triggers the use of the particle “ci“, just like pensare or credere.
Why? Because riuscire triggers the use of the pattern “a+infinitive“, which we can be replaced by “ci”.
- Sei riuscito a capire? Sì, ci sono riuscito (ci replaces “a capire”)
- Sei riuscito a superare l’esame? Sì, ci sono riuscito (ci replaces “a superare l’esame”)