Dovere, avere bisogno, servire, bisogna: The Difference

In this post, I want to discuss the differences between three Italian verbs that are often confused. Each of them expresses a need in English. However, they are used in different contexts and are not interchangeable. 

What’s the difference between dovere, avere bisogno di and servire?

The verb ‘Dovere’

There are several uses of the verb dovere. Let’s start with the most common one.

Dovere = need to / have to / must 

We use dovere to say we need to do something, we have to do something, we must do something.

As you can imagine, all these verbs trigger an action, so to speak, another verb. 

One important rule to keep in mind is that dovere is always followed by an infinitive verb.

  • Devo andare – I need to go, I have to go, I must go
  • Dobbiamo studiare di più – we need to study more, we have to study more, we must study more.
  • Devi visitare Roma you need to visit Rome, you have to visit Rome, you must visit Rome

How to say in Italian “I had to” or “I needed”?

In both cases, we have to use “ho/sono dovuto” followed by an infinitive verb.

  •  Ho dovuto cucinare – I had to cook
  • Sono dovuto andare – I had to go 

MUST vs. NEED TO/HAVE TO in Italian 

How do you know when dovere implies an obligation (must) or a need (need to / have to) ? Well, it depends on the voice intonation. Unlike English, Italian doesn’t mark this difference. So, if you want to convey “the obligation,” you should just raise the pitch of your voice while saying DEVO.

Devo andare means both I must go, and I am supposed to go. So, pay attention to the intonation and gestures.

Dovere = I’m supposed to  

Another use of dovere is when in English you would say “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

Dovere = should 

Another use of dovere in Italian, is to give a warning or a suggestion. In this case, it’s better to use the present conditional of dovere, which is: dovrei, dovresti, dovrebbo, dovremmo, doveste, dovrebbero, and equals the English “should”.

This verb is always followed by an infinitive verb.

  • dovresti mangiare più verdure – you should eat more greens
  •  dovresti leggere di più – you should read more 
  • dovrebbe smettere di fumare  – she should stop smoking 

The Verb ‘Servire’

As wordy as they are, Italians have another way of expressing a need that uses the verb servire. So, when do you use servire instead of dovere?

Servire is used with “nouns”, while dovere, as we saw in the previous paragraph, is used with action (verbs).

  • Ti serve una mano? – Do you need a hand?
  • Ci serve aiuto! – we need help 
  • Ti servono dei soldi? – Do you some money? 

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. If you want to learn more about this topic, check out this article (how to use servire in Italian)

If you want to say in Italian that you need “a thing,” servire is the verb you use! 

The verb “Avere bisogno di”

This is a verb that is often misused by English speakers. Why? Because they automatically translated “I need” into “ho bisogno di”. Most of the time, this is incorrect. Why?

As stated in n.1, the need to do something, is expressed by the verb “dovere“.

As stated in n.2, the need for something is generally expressed by “servire“.

So, when do you use “avere bisogno di?

Avere bisogno di expresses a rather pressing need or urge. So, we can say it’s an emphatic word.

  • Ho bisogno di una vacanza – I (really) need a vacation 
  • Ho bisogno di una pausa – I (really) need a break  
  • Ho bisogno di andare – I (really) need to go

Remember, use ‘ho bisogno di’ only to emphasize an urgent need.

Avere bisogno di is also used with the pronouns me/te/lui/lei/noi/voi/loro, like in the following examples or when “the person you need” is mentioned. 

  • Hai bisogno di me? – Do you need me?
  • Hai bisogno di un medico? – Do you need a doctor?
  • Abbiamo bisogno di Luigi – we need Luigi

Tips for correctly using the Italian verbs ‘dovere’ and ‘avere bisogno di‘.

  • If you need to do something, default to ‘dovere’ [pattern: dovere + verb]
  • If you need something to do something else, default to ‘servire’ [pattern: servire+noun]

To recap:

  • I need to go → devo andare – it’s correct!
  • I need to go → ho bisogno di andare – it’s correct just if you want to express a pressing need!
  • I need a hot bath to freshen up → ho bisogno di un bagno caldo per ricaricarmi –  it’s correct only if you want to express a pressing need!

The 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. It’s just another way to say: it’s necessary to (è necessario). 

  • Bisogna pagare il conto prima di ordinare il caffe – it’s 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’s necessary that my son study more

Serena Capilli

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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Ciao, I’m Serena! I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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