Italian Helping Verbs: Volere, Dovere, Potere

Learn how modal verbs work in Italian

More going out than coming in?
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The helping or modal verbs, volere (to want), dovere (to have to), and potere (to be able to), appropriately called in Italian verbi servili, or servile verbs, enable the expression of the action of other verbs in the light of our wish, intention, or determination; duty, necessity, or obligation; possibility, ability, or power.

  • I want to dance. Voglio ballare.
  • I must dance. Devo ballare.
  • I can dance! Posso ballare!

English Tense Complications

In Italian, the intent or purpose of the modal verbs changes implicitly within the one-word verb conjugation—two words max with the auxiliary in compound tenses—like all verbs in Italian. They are variations on the same word: devo, dovevo, dovrò, dovrei, avrei dovuto; posso, potevo, potrò, potrei, avrei potuto; voglio, volevo, vorrò, vorrei, avrei voluto.

The English counterpart modal verbs, however, express explicitly in different ways in different tenses. So, you have "must," "had to," "will have to," "ought to," "should have," and "supposed to." You have "can," "may" or "am able to," and "could."

This makes the English modals a bit tricky compared to the simplicity of the Italian (depending on how you look at it), but the meanings and uses are the same: One must simply learn which is which. Below is a simple table of the English renditions of volere, potere, and dovere in the various tenses coupled with the verb capire (to understand), in the first person singular, I.

  Volere Potere  Dovere 
Indicativo
Presente
I want to understand. I can/am able to understand. I must/have to understand. 
Indicativo
Imperfetto
I wanted to understand.  I could understand/
could have understood.
I had to understand/was supposed to understand. 
Indicativo
Passato Pross
I wanted to understand/insisted on understanding. I was able to understand. I had to understand/needed to understand/have had to understand. 
Indicativo
Passato Rem
I wanted to understand/insisted on understanding.  I was able to understand.  I had to understand/was forced to understand. 
Indicativo 
Trpas Pros
I had wanted to understand.  I had been able to understand.  I had had to understand. 
Indicativo
Trpas Rem
I had wanted to understand.  I had been able to understand.  I had had to understand. 
Indicativo
Futuro Sem
I will want to understand.  I will be able to understand.  I will have to understand. 
Indicativo
Futuro Ant
 
I will have wanted to understand.  I will have been able to understand.  I will have had to understand. 
Congiuntivo Presente I want to understand.  I am able/can understand.  I must/have to understand. 
Congiuntivo Passato I wanted to understand.  I was able to understand.  I had to/have had to understand. 
Congiuntivo Imperfetto I wanted to understand.  I could/would be able to understand.  I had to understand. 
Congiuntivo Trapassato I had wanted to understand. I had been able to understand.  I had had to understand. 
Condizionale Presente I want/would want/would like to understand.  I could/
would be able to understand. 
I should/should have to/ought to understand. 
Condizionale Passato  I would have wanted to understand.  I would have been able to understand/
could have understood. 
I should have/ought to have understood. 

Tense Subtleties

It merits perusing each of the modals volere, dovere, and potere singularly to understand each verb better in its uses. But they share many common traits.

In the passato prossimo, for example, volere means you wanted to do something—carried out your will to do it—and, indeed, you did it (in fact, the English "wanted" is a bit soft for the sense of the passato prossimo ho voluto). Same with dovere and potere: you had to or were able to do something and you did it.

  • Ho voluto mangiare la pizza. I wanted to eat a pizza (and I did).
  • Ho dovuto visitare la nonna. I had to/was obliged to visit grandma (and I did).
  • Ho potuto parlare con Giorgio. I was able to talk with Giorgio (and I did).

In the negative, if you say, Non mi ha voluto vedere (he/she didn't want to see me), it means that he or she did not see you. If you say, Non ho dovuto dare l'esame (I didn't have to take the exam), it means you didn't have to (and, in Italian, we can assume you didn't, though in the English it is not equally clear-cut).

With potere, if you say, Non sono potuto andare, it means you were not able to go and you did not.

The imperfetto, on the other hand, is the tense used with modal verbs for an action of imperfect arc (which wanting or being able to usually are) whose outcome, without some clarification, is not certain. In fact, sometimes one can imply that the outcome was not as expected.

  • Volevano venire. They wanted to come (and it's unclear if they did).
  • Potevano venire. They could/were able to/could have come (and it's implied that they didn't).

More information can be given to clarify the meaning, still with the imperfetto, but sometimes a tense change is needed:

  • Potevano venire ma non sono venuti. They could come but they didn't.
  • Sarebbero potuti venire ma non sono venuti. They could have come but they didn't.

With dovere, the imperfetto can be expressed with the English "was supposed to," depending on the outcome.

  • Lo dovevo vedere ieri. I was supposed to see him yesterday (and it's assumed that I did not).

With dovere in the negative, if you say, Non dovevo vederlo ieri, it means that you were not expected to see him yesterday, but you might have. We would know more from the context. Again, in English, you would differentiate with "supposed to."

If you say, Non dovevo dare l'esame (I didn't have to take the exam, same translation in English as the passato prossimo), it means you were not obliged to or supposed to or expected to take the exam (but you might have taken it anyway).

Transitive or Intransitive

Because modal verbs serve other verbs, in Italian, in their compound tenses, they take on the auxiliary demanded by the verb they are helping.

For example, if a modal verb is helping a transitive verb such as leggere (to read), the modal verb takes avere in the compound tenses:

  • A scuola ieri Lina non ha voluto leggere. Yesterday at school Lina did not want to read (and did not).
  • Ieri ho dovuto leggere un libro intero per il mio esame. Yesterday I had to read a whole book for my exam.
  • Ieri non ho potuto leggere il giornale perché non ho avuto tempo. Yesterday I was not able to read the paper because I didn't have time.

If the modal verb is helping an intransitive verb that takes essere or a verb of movement that takes essere, for example, it takes essere (remember the agreement of the past participle with verbs with essere).

  • Lucia non è voluta partire ieri. Lucia did not want to leave yesterday (and she didn't).
  • Franco è dovuto partire ieri. Franco had to leave yesterday.
  • Io non sono potuta partire perché ho perso il treno. I was not able to leave because I missed my train.

And, with an intransitive verb that takes avere:

  • Marco ha voluto cenare presto. Marco wanted to have dinner early (and he did).
  • Avremmo dovuto cenare prima. We should have had dinner earlier.
  • Non abbiamo potuto cenare prima. We were not able to have dinner earlier.

Remember your ground rules for determining the right auxiliary for your main verb; sometimes it is a case-by-case choice, depending on the use of the verb at that moment.

  • Ho dovuto vestire i bambini. I had to dress the children (transitive, avere).
  • Mi sono dovuta vestire. I had to get dressed (reflexive, essere).

Or, for example, with the verb crescere (to grow or grow up), which can be intransitive or intransitive:

  • Avresti voluto crescere i tuoi figli in campagna. You would have liked to have raised your children in the country (transitive, avere).
  • Saresti dovuta crescere in campagna. You should have grown up in the country (intransitive, essere).

The Odd Auxiliary

There are two exceptions or exemptions from the above rule about auxiliary agreement of the modal verb:

Followed by Essere

If a modal verb is followed by esserevolere essere, potere essere, or dovere essere—in the compound tenses it wants avere as its auxiliary (though essere's auxiliary is essere).

  • Avrei voluto essere più gentile. I wished I had been kinder.
  • Non ha potuto essere qui. He was not able to be here.
  • Credo che abbia dovuto essere molto paziente. I think he had to be/was forced to be very patient.

Reflexive Pronoun Position

Also, when a modal verb accompanies a reflexive or reciprocal verb, you use the auxiliary essere if the reflexive pronoun precedes the verbs, but avere if the pronoun attaches to the infinitive that the modal is supporting.

  • Mi sono dovuta sedere, or, ho dovuto sedermi. I had to sit.
  • Mi sarei voluta riposare, or, avrei voluto riposarmi. I would have liked to rest.
  • Pensava che ci fossimo voluti incontrare qui, or, pensava che avessimo voluto incontrarci qui. She thought that we had wanted to meet here.

If this confuses you, just make a rule of putting the pronoun ahead of the verb and keeping your auxiliary essere.

Pronouns

Which brings us to pronouns—direct object, indirect object, and combined double object—and modal verbs. Modal verbs let pronouns be free to move about pretty loosely: They can come before either verb or attach to the infinitive.

  • Gli ho dovuto dare il libro, or, ho dovuto dargli il libro. I had to give him the book.
  • Non gli ho potuto parlare, or, non ho potuto parlargli. I was not able to speak with him,
  • Glielo ho voluto dare, or, ho voluto darglielo. I had to give it to him,
  • Gli posso dare il gelato? or, posso dargli il gelato? Can I give him the ice cream?

With double modal verbs, there is even more freedom, both with single and double pronouns:

  • Lo devo poter fare, or, devo poterlo fare, or, devo poter farlo. I need to/must be able to do it.
  • Non lo voglio dover incontrare, or, non voglio doverlo incontrare, or, non voglio dovere incontrarlo. I don't want to have to meet him.
  • Glielo potrei volere dare, or, potrei volerglielo dare, or potrei volere darglielo. I might want to give it to her.

If you want to play with it a little, just start by putting the pronoun at the top of the sentence and moving it down from verb to verb. If your head is spinning... vi potete sedere, or potete sedervi!

Buono studio!