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 need 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 than normal verbs. In this lesson we will analyze them one by one. You will find audio recordings for every verb and real-life examples for when to use these verbs.

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

Let’s start! Iniziamo!


Why are Italian modal verbs special?

Earlier we said that modal verbs don’t exactly behave like any other verb in Italian. 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 for in a dizionario, dictionary.

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

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

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 needs 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 a few other examples featuring an infinitive verb.

Potere (can, be allowed to)

Present tense conjugation for potere

ioposso
tupuoi
lui, leipuò
noipossiamo
voipotete
loropossono

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 an appetizer 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

iovoglio
tuvuoi
lui, leivuole
noivogliamo
voivolete
lorovogliono

➡️ 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 children’s bedroom.

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

Vuoi fermarti a mangiare in un ristorante?
Do you want to stop and eat at 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

iodevo
tudevi
lui, leideve
noidobbiamo
voidovete
lorodevono

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

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

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

woman washing the dishes - modal verb dovere

Sapere (to know, to be able to)

Present tense conjugation for sapere

ioso
tusai
lui, leisa
noisappiamo
voisapete
lorosanno

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?
Do you know how to play piano?

cat playing a piano - italian modal verb sapere

When do you use the Italian modal verbs?

We said that the Italian modal verbs are used in conjunction with an infinitive verb. Even if we could translate volere as the English can, however, you will find that they behave somewhat differently in the two languages.

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?
(request)

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

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 wish or an intention to do something.

Volere translates to want and to wish, so it’s pretty straightforward 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 to mean and can be literally translated as “It wants to say”.


Italian modal verbs – When do you use dovere?

Dovere expresses a necessity or a duty.

Dovere encompasses 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 must return home.

Dovere can also take on 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 encompasses 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 for Florence is leaving?

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

Sai guidare una moto?
Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?

➡️ There’s another Italian verb that’s used to translate the English 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 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 the 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 roughly equals 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 that 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 them.

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 following the Italian modal verbs, that dictate which auxiliary verb will be used in a sentence.

Earlier we said that for each verb, there’s only one possible auxiliary. 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 say why I used “essere” in this last example? You can’t say “ho andato”, so this means that the correct auxiliary verb for andare is essere. This is why we’ll say “non SONO voluto andare in spiaggia”.

In colloquial speech, however, 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 auxiliary verb!

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

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


Essere + past participle agrees in gender and number

Whenever you use a compound tense with essere as auxiliary verb, you have to remember that the past participle agrees both in gender and number with the subject. 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 every day speech.

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

The conditional of sapere (saprei) is not that commonly used so we can do without it for now. What I would like to focus on are these three forms we have just seen and make a few examples so you can understand by yourself just 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 study, 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 need 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 talk to the manager!

That’s it! Now you know everything you need to start using the Italian modal verbs like a pro!


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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