Modal and Phraseological Verbs in Italian

These verbs serve to "support" other verbs

In addition to the Italian auxiliary verbs essere and avere, Italian modal and phraseological verbs also serve as "support" to other verbs. Italian phraseological verbs (verbi fraseologici) include  starecominciareiniziarecontinuareseguitarefinire, and smettere, which, when used before another verb (mostly in the infinitive, but also as a gerund), define a particular verbal aspect. Read on to learn more about these important Italian helping verbs.

Modal Verbs

The Italian modal verbs are dovere, potere, volere—meaning, respectively: "necessity," "possibility," and "volition"—they precede the infinitive of another verb and indicate a mode, such as in the following examples. The sentences show how to use these three verbs in Italian, followed by the type of mode in parentheses, followed by the English translation:

  • Sono dovuto tornare (necessità)—"I had to come back (need)."
  • Non ho potuto aiutarlo (possibilità).—"I could not help him (possibility)."
  • Rita vuole dormire (volontà).—"Rita wants to sleep (will)."

To underscore the close link between the modal verb and the verb that follows it, the former usually takes the auxiliary of the second:

Sono tornato. / Sono dovuto (potuto, voluto) tornare.
Ho aiutato. / Ho potuto (dovuto, voluto) aiutare.

This translates in English to:

"I'm back. / I had to (have, wanted to) return. 
I helped. / I have (had, wanted to) help.."

It is common to encounter modal verbs with the auxiliary avere, even when the governing verb requires the auxiliary essere, as in:

Sono tornato. / Ho dovuto (potuto, voluto) tornare.—"I'm back. / I had to (have, wanted to) return."

Modal Verbs Followed by Essere

In particular, the modal verbs take the auxiliary verb avere when they are followed by the verb essere:

Ho dovuto (potuto, voluto) essere magnanimo.—"I had to (have, wanted) to be magnanimous."

The presence of an unstressed pronoun, which can be placed before or after the servile verb, has an effect on the choice of the auxiliary verb, such as:

Non ho potuto andarci. Non sono potuto andarci.
Non ci sono potuto andare. Non ci ho potuto andare.

This transelates in English to:

"I could not go there. I am not able to go there. 
I could not go there. I could not go there."

In addition to dovere, potere, and volere, other verbs such as sapere (in the sense of "being able to"), preferire, osare, and desiderare can also "support" the infinitive forms:

So parlare inglese. Preferirei andarci da solo.
Non osa chiedertelo. Desideravamo tornare a casa.

In English, this translates to:

"I can speak English. I'd rather go alone. 
Do not dare ask. We wanted to go home."

Phraseological Verbs

To understand phraseological verbs, it's helpful to view how they are used in context, in brief prases. Each of the following phases in Italian uses a phraseological verb, followed by the type of action being described, followed by the translation of the phrase and type of action in English:

  • Sto parlando (azione durativa) —"I'm talking about (action durative)"
  • So per parlare (azione ingressiva)—"I know from talking (ingressive action)"
  • Cominciai a parlare (inizio dell'azione)—"began to talk (onset of action)"
  • Continuai a parlare (proseguimento dell'azione)—"continued to talk (continuation of)"
  • Smisi di parlare (fine dell'azione)—"I stopped talking (end of action)"

Additionally, various phrases and expressions are used idiomatically in Italian: essere sul punto di, andare avanti, a etc.—"be about to, go ahead, and etc."

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Filippo, Michael San. "Modal and Phraseological Verbs in Italian." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Filippo, Michael San. (2020, January 29). Modal and Phraseological Verbs in Italian. Retrieved from Filippo, Michael San. "Modal and Phraseological Verbs in Italian." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).