There are a group of verbs in Italian called modal verbs. They are also known as helper verbs, as they help another verb, explaining intention, possibility, need or ability. For example:

 

Parlo italiano – I speak Italian

Voglio parlare italiano – I want to speak Italian

Devo parlare italiano – I must speak Italian

 

In all of these examples, the main verb is parlare (to speak), but the modal verbs voglio (I want) and devo (I must) tell us more about the circumstances around the main verb. 

 

Verb tables

 

All modal verbs are irregular in Italian. They’re commonly used so worth learning by heart. Here they are below:

 

Volere – to want

Io voglio – I want

Tu vuoi – You want

Lui / lei vuole – He / she wants

Noi vogliamo – We want

Voi volete – You (plural) want

Loro vogliono – They want

 

Example: Loro vogliono andare in vacanza – They want to go on holiday

 

Potere – can / to be able to / may

Io posso – I can

Tu puoi – You can

Lui / lei può – He / she can

Noi possiamo – We can

Voi potete – You (plural) can

Loro possono – They can

 

Example: Noi possiamo fare una domanda? – Can we ask a question?

 

Dovere – must / have to

Io devo – I must

Tu devi – You must

Lui / lei deve – He / she must

Noi dobbiamo – We must

Voi dovete – You (plural) must

Loro devono – They must

 

Lei deve lavorare stasera – She has to work this evening

 

Sapere – to know how to / can

Io so – I know how to

Tu sai – You know how to

Lui / lei sa – He / she knows how to

Noi sappiamo – We know how to

Voi sapete – You (plural) know how to

Loro sanno – They know how to

 

Voi sapete cucinare? – Do you know to cook?

 

Rules

 

Most of the time a modal verb is followed by another verb. This verb is always in the infinitive, have a look at these examples below:

 

Voglio andare in Italia – I want to go to Italy (andare is the infinitive form)

Posso partire questo fine settimana – I can leave this weekend (partire is in the infinitive form)

Devo fare la valigia – I have to pack my suitcase (fare is in the infinitive form)

So parlare italiano – I can speak Italian (parlare is in the infinitive form)

 

Sometimes you will hear the modal verb used by itself, although the main verb is understood:

 

Vuoi venire alla festa? – Do you want to come to the party?

Mi dispiace, non posso – I’m sorry, I can’t

 

Vieni al museo con noi domani? – Are you coming with us to the museum tomorrow?

No, non voglio. Preferisco andare al mare -No, I don’t want to. I prefer to go the beach.

 

Perché studi così tanto? – Why are you studying so much?

Devo! Le lezioni sono molto difficili – I have to! The lessons are very difficult

 

To make a negative sentence with a modal, you just put non (not) before the modal. Here are some examples:

 

Non voglio quel telefonino – I don’t want that mobile phone

Non posso uscire? – Can’t I go out?  

Non devo studiare stasera – I don’t have to study this evening

Non so nuotare– I don’t know how to swim / I can’t swim