What is a modal verb?

In this article you’ll learn how to use 4 very important Italian verbs called verbi servili (modal verbs).

Just like in English, Italian modal verbs are used to indicate an obligation (must), a possibility / capability (can), or a wish (want). In other words, they ‘serve’ another verb, to express an intention, a possibility or a need. They’re normally used together with another verb in the infinitive tense.

For example:

  • I want to go out. Voglio uscire.
  • We must buy a car. Dobbiamo comprare una macchina.
  • Puoi passarmi il sale? Can you pass me the salt?

The structure of a sentence with a modal verb is:
(subject) + modal verb + verb in the infinitive

All Italian modal verbs are irregular, meaning their conjugations don’t follow the usual pattern.

italian modal verbs

Meaning and use of the modal verbs in Italian

Dovere
The verb dovere indicates an obligation.
Example:
You must not talk like that. Non devi parlare così.

Potere
Potere is used to ask for permission or to express a possibility.
Examples:
Can I go out tonight? Posso uscire stasera?
We can go on holiday, because we have the money. Possiamo andare in vacanza, perché abbiamo i soldi.

Sapere
Sapere means being able/capable of doing something, and it’s used to talk about skills.
Examples:
I can play the piano. So suonare il piano.
They can ski well. Sanno sciare bene.

Volere
Volere indicates a wish or an intention.
Examples:
I want to improve my Italian. Voglio migliorare il mio italiano.
Do you want a piece of cake? Vuoi un pezzo di torta?

SAPERE vs POTERE

Because the verb ‘can’ translates both sapere and potere, it can be difficult to know which one to use.
If you’re not sure, just remember to use sapere ONLY when you’re talking about a skill (knowing how to do something). Let’s clarify this with some examples:

  • Paolo sa nuotare. Paolo can swim. (skill / capability)
  • Paolo non può nuotare perché non ha il costume. Paolo can’t swim because he hasn’t got a swimsuit.
    (Paolo knows how to swim, but he can’t cos he hasn’t got a swimsuit)
  • Non so guidare. I can’t drive. (skill / capability)
  • Non posso guidare perché mi fa male la gamba. I can’t drive, because my leg aches. (I know how to drive, but I can’t because my leg is hurting).

MODAL VERBS IN THE PRESENT PERFECT

Whenever you need to use the modal verbs to talk about events in the past using passato prossimo (present perfect), it’s important to know which auxiliary to use, Essere or Avere.

First of all take a look at the past participles of the modal verbs in Italian:

  • POTERE → POTUTO
  • VOLERE → VOLUTO
  • SAPERE → SAPUTO
  • DOVERE → DOVUTO

The choice of the auxiliary depends on the main verb used in the sentence: if the main verb requires to use avere, like most verbs that have a direct object (verbi transitivi), you’ll need to use avere as your auxiliary.

  • Ieri ho dovuto studiare matematica. Yesterday I had to study Maths.

If the main verb is a verb that requires essere to form the passato prossimo (movement verbs, change of state verbs, reflexive verbs), then essere will be the auxiliary to use.

  • Stamattina sono dovuto andare in biblioteca. This morning I had to go to the library.

So the structure would be:
(subject) + essere/avere + part participle of the modal verb + verb in the infinitive

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