Italian modal verbs

How many Italian modal verbs are there, and how do they work?

There are four modal verbs in Italian. They are:

  • potere (can, to be able to)
  • volere (to want)
  • dovere (must, to have to)
  • sapere (can, to know)

Puoi passarmi la marmellata?
Can you pass me the jam?

Mamma, voglio giocare in giardino!
Mom, I want to play in the garden!

Devo comprare una nuova macchina.
I have to buy a new car.

Sai suonare la chitarra?
Can you play the guitar?

young man practicing on the guitar - italian modal verbs

Italian modal verbs behave differently from normal verbs. In this lesson, we will analyze them one by one. You will find audio recordings for each verb and real-life examples of when to use them.

By the end of this lesson, you’ll know everything you need to know about the Italian modal verbs.

Let’s get started! Iniziamo!

Why are Italian modal verbs special?

Earlier we said that modal verbs don’t behave exactly like any other Italian verb. This is because…

Italian modal verbs are followed by an infinitive verb.

That’s it, that’s what sets them apart from the other verbs. The infinitive verb is a verb in its basic form, the one you look up in a dizionario, dictionary.

This means that any verb after potere, volere, dovere and sapere must NOT be conjugated. You only need to conjugate the modal verb.

Aspettare, mangiare, svegliarsi, andare are all infinitive verbs in Italian. Let’s look at an example for each one.

Potresti aspettare ancora qualche minuto.
You could wait a few more minutes.

Voglio mangiare una pizza.
I want to eat a pizza.

Enrico deve svegliarsi presto.
Enrico has to wake up early.

Sai andare in bicicletta?
Can you ride a bicycle?

girl riding a bicycle - italian modal verbs sapere

Present tense conjugations for all Italian modal verbs

Italian modal verbs are also irregular verbs, so it might be useful to brush up on their present tense (indicativo presente) conjugation before we delve deeper into their characteristics.

To speed up your learning, you will find an audio recording for each, along with some other examples using an infinitive verb.

Potere (can, be allowed to)

Present tense conjugation for potere

lui, leipuò

Title: Italian All-in-One For Dummies
Language: English / Italian
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Pages: 672

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Puoi chiudere la finestra, per favore?
Can you close the window, please?

Federico si è sposato? Non può essere vero!
Federico got married? It can’t be true!

Possiamo ordinare un antipasto prima dei primi?
Can we order a starter before the first courses?

man in shock because of the news - it can't be true! - italian modal verb potere

Volere (to want)

Present tense conjugation for volere

lui, leivuole

➡️ If you have trouble pronouncing the -GL- consonant cluster, read the Italian pronunciation guide!

Voglio ridipingere la cameretta del bambini.
I want to repaint the nursery.

Giorgio vuole andare in vacanza in Thailandia.
Giorgio wants to go on vacation to Thailand.

Vuoi fermarti a mangiare in un ristorante?
Would you like to stop and eat in a restaurant?

voglio giocare - I want to play - crying kid because he can't play - modal verb VOLERE

Dovere (must, need, have to, should)

Present tense conjugation for dovere

lui, leideve

Dobbiamo consegnare il saggio entro il prossimo mercoledì.
We have to hand in the essay by next Wednesday.

I ragazzi devono ancora alzarsi.
The boys still have to get up.

Devo ancora lavare i piatti.
I still have to do the dishes.

woman washing the dishes - modal verb dovere

Sapere (to know, to be able to)

Present tense conjugation for sapere

lui, leisa

So cucinare, ma non so cantare.
I can cook, but I can’t sing.

Sai leggere l’alfabeto cirillico?
Can you read the Cyrillic alphabet?

Sapete suonare il pianoforte?
Can you play the piano?

cat playing a piano - italian modal verb sapere

When do you use the Italian modal verbs?

We have said that the Italian modal verbs are used in conjunction with an infinitive verb. However, even if we could translate volere as can, you will find that it behaves somewhat differently.

Italian modal verbs – When do you use potere?

Potere expresses a possibility, a permission or a request.

Possiamo giocare a calcio nel cortile sul retro, ma non in giardino.
We can play soccer in the backyard, but not in the garden.

I ladri non possono essere andati molto lontano.
The thieves cannot have gone very far.

Potere translates can, may and be allowed to when used with probabilities and permissions. It is not usually used to convey the ability to do something (that’s what the modal verb sapere is for).

Puoi aprire la finestra?
Can you open the window?

Sai aprire la finestra?
Can / do you know how to you open the window?

italian modal verb potere - a boy who has just opened a window to let fresh air in the house

Italian modal verbs – When do you use volere?

Volere expresses a desire or an intention to do something.

Volere translates to want and to wish, so it’s pretty easy for an English speaker to use.

Vogliamo comprare una seconda casa.
We want to buy a second home.

Cosa vuoi regalare alla mamma per il suo compleanno?
What do you want to give mom for her birthday?

Perché non volete visitare il museo?
Why don’t you want to visit the museum?

Unlike potere, volere can also be followed by a direct object, just as in English.

Mamma, voglio un cane!
Mommy, I want a dog!

italian modal verb volere - baby and a dog

Volere is also used in the expression cosa vuol dire…? as in:

Cosa vuol dire “I know” in inglese?
What is “I know” in English?

Cosa vuol dire “ich bin” in tedesco?
What is “ich bin” in German?

Cosa vuol dire questa parola?
What does this word mean?

Voler dire translates as to mean and can be translated literally as “to want to say”.

Italian modal verbs – When do you use dovere?

Dovere expresses a necessity or a duty.

Dovere covers the meaning of four different English verbs: must, need, have to and should.

In Italian, there’s no difference between “I must take out the garbage”, “I have to take out the garbage” and “I need to take out the garbage”. You can use a conjugation of dovere in all three sentences.

Devo portare fuori l’immondizia.
I must take out the garbage.
I have to to take out the garbage.
I need to take out the garbage.

Devo riordinare camera mia.
I have to tidy up my room.

Dobbiamo tornare a casa.
We have to back home.

Dovere can also take a direct object such as in dovere un favore, “to own a favor”.

Ti devo un favore.
I owe you a favor.

grateful man bending on the ground

Italian modal verbs – When do you use sapere?

Sapere expresses the ability to do something.

Sapere covers the meaning of two English verbs: can, as in “to be able to do something”, and to know a piece of information.

Sapete a che ora parte il treno per Firenze?
Do you know what time the train to Florence leaves?

Sappiamo molto poco di questa specie di insetti.
We know very little about this type of insect.

Sai guidare una moto?
Cao you ride a motorcycle?

➡️ There’s another Italian verb that translates the English verb to know: conoscere. Learn everything about the difference between conoscere and sapere!

man riding a motorcycle - do you know how to ride a motorcycle in Italian modal verbs - sapere

Sapere can precede a direct object or an adverb, as in the English verb to know. It can also be followed by the conjunction che.

So la risposta!
I know the answer!

Sai dove sono i miei occhiali?
Do you know where my glasses are?

Sappiamo che sei dietro la tenda, vieni fuori!
We know you are behind the curtain, come out!

Italian modal verbs in compound tenses

From now on, we will delve even deeper into Italian grammar.

If you already have some experience with Italian verb tenses, you will know that some tenses are conjugated using an auxiliary verb and the past participle of the main verb.

In the passato prossimo tense for example, which is roughly equivalent to the English present perfect tense, you will have to use the present tense conjugation of essere and avere (“to be” and “to have”) + the past participle of a verb.

Abbiamo lavato la macchina.
We have washed the car.

Sono andato in spiaggia.
I went to the beach.

bear basking at the beach - italian modal verbs

The auxiliary verb is fixed. You cannot say “siamo lavato” nor can you say “ho andato”. These are BIG mistakes!

Italian modal verbs are no different. Here’s the past participle for every verb:

  • potere, potuto
  • volere, voluto
  • dovere, dovuto
  • sapere, saputo

There’s only one caveat. Except for sapere, which always uses avere, all the other Italian modal verbs can use either essere or avere as an auxiliary verb, depending on the infinitive verb that follows.

So you can have both sono potuto and ho potuto, ho voluto and sono voluto

How do you choose between the two?

As mentioned, it’s the infinitive verbs, the verbs that follow the Italian modal verbs, that determine which auxiliary verb is used in a sentence.

We’ve already said that there is only one possible auxiliary for each verb. We also said that we can’t say “siamo pulito”, but only abbiamo pulito. This means that the auxiliary for lavare is avere.

Non ho potuto lavare la macchina.
I couldn’t wash the car.

You will say “non HO potuto lavare la macchina”. You cannot say “non sono potuto lavare la macchina”.

Non sono voluto andare in spiaggia.
I didn’t want to go to the beach.

I didn't want to go... - man hiking on a mountain

Can you tell why I used “essere” in this last example? You can’t say “ho andato”, so the correct auxiliary verb for andare is essere. That’s why we say “non SONO voluto andare in spiaggia”.

In colloquial speech, it is also common to hear:

Non ho voluto andare in spiaggia.
I didn’t want to go to the beach.

But we’ve just said that andare uses essere as an auxiliary verb!

Yes, we have. Sono voluto andare is the correct alternative according to the Italian grammar rules, but ho voluto andare is also accepted (see this article on Italian modal verbs and their auxiliaries [it’s in Italian]) because its use is widespread throughout the country.

This stretching of the rule that occurs in everyday speech only applies to verbs that use essere as an auxiliary!

Essere + past participle agrees in gender and number

Whenever you use a compound tense with essere as an auxiliary verb, you have to remember that the past participle agrees with the subject in both gender and number. This is mandatory.

This rule applies to all verbs, Italian modal verbs and standard verbs alike. For any given subject you will then have 4 different alternatives:

Non SONO VOLUTO andare in spiaggia.
I didn’t want to go to the beach.
(male, singular)

Non SONO VOLUTA andare in spiaggia.
I didn’t want to go to the beach.
(female, singular)

Non SIAMO VOLUTI andare in spiaggia.
We didn’t want to go to the beach.
(male, plural)

Non SIAMO VOLUTE andare in spiaggia.
We didn’t want to go to the beach.
(female, plural)

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Italian modal verbs in other tenses

Italian modal verbs are often used in the conditional tense in everyday speech.

Potrei, vorrei, dovrei
I could, I would like, I should

The conditional of sapere (saprei) is not used very often, so we can do without it for now. What I want to focus on are these three forms we just saw and give some examples so that you can see for yourself how important it is to learn them.

Potrei venire a prenderti, ma non prima delle otto.
I could pick you up, but not before eight o’clock.

Vorrei un caffè, per favore.
I would like a coffee, please.

Dovrei studiare, ma non riesco a concentrarmi.
I should be studying, but I can’t concentrate.

italian modal verbs - I would like a coffee, please. - woman preparing herself a coffee

Vorrei is especially important because you will need to use it in any situation where you want something done and need to ask for it politely.

Vorrei spedire questa lettera.
I would like to send this letter.

Vorrei spedire questa lettera.
I would like to send this letter.

Vorrei parlare con il titolare!
I would like to speak to the manager!

That’s the end of our lesson on the Italian modal verbs!

What next?

Now that you’ve seen how the Italian modal verbs work, you might want to keep learning Italian online with these free Italian resources:

Or you might also want an excellent offline Italian grammar resource to take with you at all times (Amazon).

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