Confused by the "Modal" verbs section?

Well along into the Italian lessons tree, you'll eventually reach a unit entitled V. Modal.
There isn't a large explanation about them as an introduction and, indeed, it is only two groups of lessons that makes up the Unit.

In this unit, you will discover that the lessons seem to concentrate on three verbs in particular: Potere, Dovere, and Volere (To be able to, To have to (do), To want to).

The trick to understanding these verbs is that, in this unit, you will also be using other verbs but only in an infinitive form.
Allow me to explain further.

The use of the verbs potere and dovere, in particular, are easy to illustrate.
When you form your sentence with the proper conjugation of those verbs, you will find out that you need to use another verb, along with it, in order to be understood. Here are some examples:

  • I am able to for a long time.
  • You must your room.
  • He wants to Paris one day.

Those sentences are incomplete, obviously. Now if I add a second verb:

  • I am able to swim for a long time.
  • You have to (must) clean your room.
  • He wants (would like) to visit (to go to) Paris one day.

Other than using the modal verb only as a one-word statement, in response to an earlier statement-- I can. I must. --you can't come up with a way to make a sentence that doesn't require the use of another verb.

Now those completed sentences in Italian, with the modal verb + infinitive formula applied:

  • Posso nuotare per un lungo tempo.
  • Devi pulire la tua stanza.
  • Lui vorrebbe visitare Paris qualche giorno.

You'll notice that Volere (to want) is a bit different. This is because it can be used as a Modal verb or a non-modal verb. The way to keep it straight is to think of the Modal context as "to want to", instead of just "to want".

  • I want some ice cream. Non-modal.
  • I want to have a party. Modal.

When you are using volere in its Modal forms, you should use the conditional tense (would like to, instead of want), to signal the modality. You will also spot the conditional tense in sentences with Potere (I could...).

Again, in Italian:

  • Voglio del gelato. (I want)
  • Vorrei fare una festa. (I would like to)
  • Potrebbe chiudere la finestra. (He is able to/ he could)

The three verbs in the modal unit aren't the only modal verbs; they are just the most common ones, by far. A similar thing sometimes happens, for instance, when you use Sapere:

  • I know the answer. Non-modal.
  • I know how to cook. Modal.

With sapere, though, there isn't any change in conjugation or use of a different verb ending.
But there will be a verb infinitive following:

  • So la risposta.
  • So cucinare.
March 26, 2016


Grazie mille!

March 26, 2016

Grazie ancora MABBY.. tu sempre insegnami molto !

March 27, 2016

I love the way you break this stuff down; so helpful! Thanks for always sharing your knowledge.

March 27, 2016

Come sempre ... chiaro come una campana. Grazie mille.

March 28, 2016

You can also use I would like - vorrei and he/she would like - vorrebbe in non modal form as a polite request.

Vorrei una birra - I would like a beer

Vorrebbe un bicchiere di vino rosso - She would like a glass of wine

You need to be careful with "Could" in Italian because it has a double meaning in English and translates to both the conditional and the imperfect in Italian.

Potrei andarci domani - I could go there tomorrow

In this case, "could" means "would be able" - conditional

Non potevo andarci ieri - I could not go yesterday.

In this case, "could" means "was able" - imperfect past

March 27, 2016

Another excellent post as always Mabby. May I ask what sources you use? Schlaum's by any chance?

March 26, 2016

I'd also like to know

March 26, 2016

Nope. It comes from my brain down to my fingertips.

The only reference book I own is English Grammar for Students of Italian , and I didn't consult it on this topic.

March 26, 2016

Read some reviews about the book and it looks like it's a good one. I'll definitely be buying it, thanks for sharing it.

March 27, 2016

That's a great book btw!

I would add one note about the negation of dovere. It doesn't quite work exactly like English. This has caused some strange miscommunication for me. Think of the difference between "you must not..." & "you don't have to...", pretty different.

If you want to explicitly state "you don't have to ..." it's useful to add "per forza"

Non devi per forza parlare inglese.

Grazie Mabby! ciao!

March 28, 2016

Very helpful explanation.

April 10, 2019
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