Modal verbs.

I wrote this article following a recent complaint about the scanty grammar notes for modal verbs. I hope it may provide a useful complement.
The post is quite long because all aspects of the modal construction are covered (e.g. which auxiliary should be used for compound tenses, how clitic pronouns affect the construction, etc.).
Rather than approaching this as a single topic, it would be better to break it into several parts, each of which can be considered as a side topic while learning compound tenses, then the direct/indirect object clitic pronouns, the reflexive conjugation of verbs, the use of the clitic pronouns ne and ci.
So these rules can be 'digested' as far as a learner's progress along the tree enables him/her to do.

Modal verbs (or modals, in short) are the ones used in combination with a second verb.
English modal verbs are  "can", "could", "may", "might", "will", "would", "shall", "should" and "must".
Italian modals are much fewer; they are used in a similar way, but unlike the English ones, they have a full conjugation, i.e. all the standard tenses and moods, as any other ordinary verb. So in translating them, different verbs are sometimes used, e.g. "can" or "must" have no future nor past tense, which can be rendered as "will be able", "will have to", and "was able", "had to", respectively.

The modal verbs in Italian are: potere, dovere, and volere:

  • dovere = must, to have to, ought to, to be bound to, to be to (do something)

  • volere = to want, to be willing

  • potere = can, may, to be able, to be allowed.

A fourth verb, sapere, is a modal when it takes the meaning of "can", "to be able", "to know how". 
When this verb is followed by a noun it takes the meaning of "to know (something)"; in this case, it is no longer a modal, but it is akin to conoscere (see
Sapere is not a modal also when it is directly followed by the preposition di, as it takes the meaning of "to taste like".

The difference between potere and sapere is rather subtle, and very often puzzles learners.
The former verb has the meaning of "may", "can", "to be able", "to be allowed", stressing that in order to perform the action some requirement or condition is needed (e.g. a tool, a permission, certain weather conditions, etc.):

  • As soon as the store opens, I can do the shopping.

  • I can fix the engine if you fetch me the tools.

  • May I use the phone?

Instead, sapere stresses one's own ability in performing the action, as a result of having learned such skill (e.g. to speak a language, as the result of having studied it):

  • I can swim.

  • Do you know how to get in?

  • He is able to look after himself.

The difference between these two verbs is easier to understand in negative sentences, because non potere means "to be unable" due to lack of equipment, adverse circumstances, some kind of hindrance or obstacle, etc., while non sapere means "to be unable" due to the lack of skills needed for the task.

Each modal verb can be followed directly by any other verb (including another modal).
While the modal (first verb) is regularly inflected, in agreement with the subject of the sentence, the second verb always remains in the infinitive form:

subject + modal (inflected) + second verb (infinitive) + object

When also the modal verb is used in its infinitive form (i.e. two consecutive infinitives), its ending is usually shortened by one vowel (e), for phonetic reasons. This is an apocope, not an elision, so no apostrophe is needed in place of the missing vowel.
Some examples:

  • dovere + tornare → dover tornare = to have to / must come back

  • potere + mangiare → poter mangiare = can / may eat

  • sapere + aggiustare → saper aggiustare = to be able to fix

  • volere + andare → voler andare = to want to go

When modals are used in any other mood and tense, they are never shortened.

  • (Io) devo finire il lavoro. = I must / have to finish the work.

  • (Voi) potete venire? = Can you come? (do you have the time / the permission?)

  • (Voi) sapete venire? = Can / Are you able you come? (do you know the way?)

  • Il gatto voleva entrare in casa. = The cat wanted to get into the house.

  • (Noi) non potevamo pagare con la carta di credito. = We could not pay with the credit card.

  • Il tecnico saprà riparare il televisore? = Will the technician be able to repair the TV set?

When modal verbs take compound tenses, choosing the right auxiliary (avere or essere) is easy. As a rule of thumb, choose the auxiliary that the second verb would take if it was used alone (regardless of the modal):

lavorare, leggere, scrivere, comprare, mangiare, etc. take the auxiliary avere;
andare, entrare, uscire, tornare, venire, etc. take the auxiliary essere.

Remember that using essere affects the past participle (unlike avere), in that essere forces the past participle to agree with the subject of the sentence, in gender and number:

  • La ragazza ha voluto leggere quel libro. = The girl has wanted to read that book.

  • La ragazza è voluta venire qui. = The girl has wanted to come here.

  • (Loro) avevano dovuto lavorare fino a tardi. = They had been bound to work till late.

  • (Loro) erano dovuti/dovute tornare. = They had been bound to return. (masculine/feminine)

All four modal verbs, when used alone, take the auxiliary avere.
According to official grammar rules, in a modal construction also the auxiliary that modal verbs take (avere) can be used, regardless of the second verb [reference: Accademia della Crusca].
This means that

  • La ragazza ha voluto venire qui. = The girl wanted to come here.

  • (Loro) avevano dovuto tornare. = They had to return.

are equally legit. So one could legally use the auxiliary avere in any modal construction (because a modal verb is always there).
Since these alternative forms are less common in everyday's conversation, poor speakers might sometimes (wrongly!) claim that avere should not be used. So I recommend to follow the aforesaid rule of thumb.

When clitic pronouns come together with a modal construction, a major doubt is where to place the pronoun.

If both verbs take the infinitive form, the clitic pronoun should bind to the first (modal) verb, because binding it to the second verb sounds very unusual:

  • poterlo leggere = can read it / may read it

  • poter leggerlounusual / awkward

  • doverli chiedere = to have to ask for them

  • dover chiederliunusual / awkward

  • sapervi aiutare = to be able to help you

  • saper aiutarviunusual / awkward

  • volersi lavare = to want to wash oneself

  • voler lavarsiunusual / awkward

When the modal construction is used with any finite tense and mood, the clitic pronoun can freely stand with either of the two verbs.
Let's see how this works with simple tenses first.
Remember that only the first (modal) verb is inflected, while the second verb remains in the infinitive form. So if the pronoun stays with the modal verb, it stands as an individual word before the verb:

  • (Noi) lo possiamo leggere. = We can / may read it. (direct object pronoun)

  • (Io) vi dovrò insegnare questa regola. = I will have to teach you (= to you) this rule. (indirect object pronoun)

  • L'insegnante li saprà aiutare. = The teacher will be able to help them. (direct object pronoun)

  • (Loro) le vogliono dare qualcosa. = They want to give her (= to her) something. (indirect object pronoun)

but if the pronoun stands with the second verb, it always binds to the infinitive's end:

  • (Noi) possiamo leggerlo. = We can / may read it.

  • (Io) dovrò insegnarvi questa regola. = I will have to teach you this rule.

  • L'insegnante saprà aiutarli. = The teacher will be able to help them.

  • (Loro) vogliono darle qualcosa. = They want to give her something.

When compound tenses are used with clitic pronouns, things become slightly more complicated.

According to the general rules of the past participle agreement (see and

(1) a direct object clitic pronoun causes the past participle to agree in gender and number with the direct object of the sentence, i.e. with the clitic pronoun itself;
(2) an indirect object clitic pronoun does not affect the past participle, which remains invariable;
(3) lastly, if the auxiliary is essere, the past participle must agree with the subject of the sentence.
Rule (1) overrides any of the following two.

The position of the clitic pronoun is either before the auxiliary, or bound to the infinitive.
So the first sentence among the aforesaid examples, using a compound tense, turns into:

  • (Noi) lo abbiamo potuto leggere. = We have been able to read it.


  • (Noi) abbiamo potuto leggerlo. = (same)

If the clitic pronoun had been le (feminine, plural):

  • (Noi) le abbiamo potute leggere. = We have been able to read them.


  • (Noi) abbiamo potuto leggerle. (no agreement)

Note that in modern Italian rule (1) about the past participle agreement applies only when the clitic pronoun stands before the auxiliary, not when it binds to the infinitive:

  • (Noi) abbiamo potute leggerle. ← the past participle agreement here sounds archaic (yet not ungrammatical), and is generally deprecated

In the second aforesaid example (i.e. with an indirect object pronoun) the past participle remains invariable:

  • (Io) vi ho dovuto insegnare questa regola. = I have had / have been bound to teach you (= to you) this rule.  (no agreement)

  • (Io) ho dovuto insegnarvi questa regola.  (no agreement)

In the third example (with a direct object pronoun) the past participle agrees once again with the direct object, if the pronoun is used before the auxiliary:

  • L'insegnante vi aveva saputi/sapute aiutare. = The teacher had been able to help you.  (masculine/feminine, according to whom vi refers to)

  • L'insegnante aveva saputo aiutarvi. (no agreement)

In the fourth example (with an indirect object pronoun) the past participle is invariable:

  • (Loro) le avevano voluto dare qualcosa. = They had wanted to give her something.  (no agreement)

  • (Loro) avevano voluto darle qualcosa.  (no agreement)

With verbs that take the reflexive conjugation, a different scheme is used.

If both verbs are used in the infinitive form, the reflexive clitic pronoun always binds to the first (modal) verb:

vestirsi = to get dressed

  • doversi vestire = must get dressed / to have to get dressed

  • dover vestirsiunusual / awkward

lavarsi = to wash oneself, get washed

  • potersi lavare = can wash oneself / to be able to wash oneself

  • poter lavarsiunusual / awkward

If the reflexive clitic pronoun stands before the first (modal) verb, the auxiliary essere is used; this makes the past participle agree with the subject:

sedersi = to sit down

  • (Io) mi voglio sedere. = I want to sit down.

  • (Io) mi ero voluto/voluta sedere. = I had wanted to sit down.  (masculine/feminine, according to the subject)

  • (Lui) si è voluto sedere. = He has wanted to sit down.

  • (Lei) si è voluta sedere. = She has wanted to sit down.

  • (Loro) si saranno voluti/volute sedere. = They may have wanted(✱) to sit down.  (masculine/feminine, according to the subject)

(✱) here the future perfect takes the conjectural meaning, "may have wanted", rather than "will have wanted".

But if the reflexive clitic pronoun is bound to the infinitive, the auxiliary avere is used, and the past participle remains invariable:

  • (Io) avevo voluto sedermi. = I had wanted to sit down.

  • (Lui / Lei) ha voluto sedersi. = He / She has wanted to sit down.

  • (Loro) avranno voluto sedersi. = They may have wanted to sit down.

Two more examples:

  • I treni si erano dovuti fermare alla stazione. = The trains had had to stop / had been bound to stop at the station.

  • I treni avevano dovuto fermarsi alla stazione.

  • (Io) mi sono potuto/potuta presentare. = I have been able to introduce myself.  (masculine/feminine, according to the subject)

  • (Io) ho potuto presentarmi.

Using the locative clitic pronoun ci ("there", "in that place", "in it", "on it"):

voler scrivere + ci  →  volerci scrivere = to want to write on it / there

  • (Io) ci voglio scrivere il mio indirizzo. = I want to write my address on it / there.

voler entrare + ci  →  volerci entrare = to want to get in there

  • (Noi) ci volevamo entrare. = We wanted / were willing to get in there.

Ci does not affect the past participle, nor the choice of the auxiliary, which depends on the second verb, regardless of the position of the clitic pronoun (→ follow the same rules as with indirect object clitic pronouns):

  • (Io) ci ho voluto scrivere il mio indirizzo. = I have wanted to write my address on it / there

  • (Io) ho voluto scriverci il mio indirizzo.

  • (Noi) ci eravamo voluti/volute entrare. = We had wanted / had been willing to get in there.

  • (Noi) eravamo voluti/volute entrarci.

Note that rule (3) about the past participle agreement still applies when the clitic pronoun binds to the infinitive, so in the last sentence the past participle agrees with the subject (noi) in either case, and it can be masculine (voluti) if noi refers to male persons, or male+female), or it can be feminine (volute) if noi refers to female persons.

Once again, it would be legit to use avere instead of essere, although it is less common, and could be (wrongly) criticized; obviously, when using avere the past participle remains invariable:

  • (Noi) ci avevamo voluto entrare. = We had wanted to get in there.

  • (Noi) avevamo voluto entrarci.

Using the partitive pronoun ne ("of it", "of them", "of this", "of that"):

poter prendere + ne  →   poterne prendere = can / may / to be able / to be allowed to take (a quantity) of it/them.

  • (Lui) ne può prendere due. = He can take two of them.

voler leggere + ne  →  volerne leggere = to want to read (a quantity) of it/them.

  • (Io) ne volevo leggere alcune righe. = I wanted / was willing to read a few lines of it.

Ne causes the past participle to agree with the direct object (→ follow the same rules as with direct object clitic pronouns):

  • (Lui) ne ha potuti prendere due. = He has been able to take two of them.  (potuti agrees with "two of them", which therefore refers to a masculine noun)

  • (Lui) ne ha potute prendere due. = He has been able to take two of them.  (potute agrees with "two of them", which therefore refers to a feminine noun)

  • (Lui) ha potuto prenderne due.  (no agreement when the pronoun binds to the infinitive)

  • (Io) ne avevo volute leggere alcune righe. = I had wanted to read a few lines of it.  (volute refers to alcune righe, feminine)

  • (Io) avevo voluto leggerne alcune righe.  (no agreement when the pronoun binds to the infinitive)

Let's see what happens when a reflexive clitic pronoun (i.e. a verb taking the reflexive conjugation) combines with a direct object clitic pronoun:

mettersi = to put on, wear (reflexive conjugation) + li or le (direct object clitic pronouns)

  • (Io) me li voglio mettere. = I want to put them on. ("them" is masculine, e.g. guanti = "gloves")

  • (Io) me le voglio mettere. = I want to put them on. ("them" is feminine, e.g. scarpe = "shoes")

Using compound tenses:

  • (Io) me li ero voluti mettere. = I had wanted to put them on.

  • (Io) me le ero volute mettere. = I had wanted to put them on.

and changing the pronoun's position:

  • (Io) avevo voluto mettermeli.

  • (Io) avevo voluto mettermele.

Since the conjugation is reflexive (mettersi), essere is used if the clitic pronoun stands before the auxiliary, avere if it binds to the infinitive. But since the sentence includes also a direct object pronoun (li or le), the past participle always agrees with the direct object. This last rule (1) overrides the one according to which the auxiliary essere causes the past participle to agree with the subject, i.e. rule (2).

  • (Io) me li ero voluti mettere.

  • (Io) me le ero volute mettere.

the past participle voluti agrees with the direct object li (e.g. guanti), and volute agrees with the direct object le (e.g. scarpe). In neither case it agrees with the subject io, as it should, if the sentence had no direct object clitic pronoun:

sedersi = to sit down (reflexive conjugation)

  • Il signore si era voluto sedere. = The gentleman had wanted to sit down.

  • La signora si era voluta sedere. = The lady had wanted to sit down.

So, generally speaking, the rules for direct object clitic pronouns and ne override the rules for the reflexive clitic pronouns, which in turn override the rules for indirect object clitic pronouns and the locative pronoun ci:

mettere = to put, to place + ne (partitive clitic pronoun) + ci (locative clitic pronoun)

potercene mettere = can / to be able to put there (a quantity) of it / of them

  • (Io) ce ne posso mettere cinque. = I can put there five of them.

  • (Io) ce ne ho potuti mettere cinque. = I have been able to put there five of them. ("them" refers to a masculine noun)

  • (Io) ce ne ho potute mettere cinque. = I have been able to put there five of them. ("them" refers to a feminine noun)

Here the past participle agrees with the direct object because of the presence of ne.

But if the pronoun is bound to the infinitive:

  • (Io) ho potuto mettercene cinque. (no agreement).

A small number of verbs take the same construction as the four modal ones, i.e. first verb (inflected) + second verb (infinitive). But they are not officially considered modals, and a few rules actually mismatch. The most common ones are:

amare = to love (to do something), be fond of (doing something)

desiderare = to (be one's) wish, would like (to do something) [polite]

preferire = to prefer (to do something)

gradire = to like (to do someting), be pleased with (doing something), fancy (doing something) [polite]

detestare = to hate (doing something)

odiare = to hate (doing something)

intendere = to intend, have the intention (of doing something) (when not followed by a second verb it means "to understand", or "to allude")

osare = to dare (to do something)

risultare = to turn out to be, to prove

solere = to be used, to do (something) routinely, to be in the habit of (doing something)

essere soliti = same meaning as solere

piacere = to be likeable (to someone) → usually translated as "to like".


  • (Noi) amiamo viaggiare. = We love to travel.

  • (Voi) desiderate pranzare di fuori? = Would you like (Is it your wish) to have lunch outside?

  • (Io) gradirei mangiare qualcosa di leggero. = I would like (I would be pleased) to eat something light.

  • Chiunque odia perdere. = Anybody hates to lose.

  • Vi piace leggere poesie? = Is it likeable to you to read poems? → Do you like to read poems?

Clitic pronouns can only bind to the infinitive of the second verb (unlike with true modal verbs):

  • (Noi) preferiamo evitarlo. = We prefer to avoid him / it.

  • (Noi) lo preferiamo evitare.unusual / awkward

  • (Lui) intende comprarne molti. = He intends to buy many of them.

  • (Lui) ne intende comprare molti.unusual / awkward.

July 14, 2018


Thank you for sharing! Your dedication improves A LOT the quality of the italian course! You are really making the difference here :D

July 14, 2018

Thank you for the appreciation!

July 14, 2018

Another wonderful lesson for me to print and refer to again and again. Thank you so much

It is not just what you write that helps me. Knowing that our hero in Rome is putting so much into our learning, encourages me to try harder. Thank you.

July 14, 2018

That's kind of you! Thanks a lot! :-)

July 14, 2018

Grazie mille!!

Avere dieci lingotti. So che sono inutili, ma prendeteli come espressione della mia gratitudine per il vostro sforzo di aiutare i discenti come me.

Please correct my Italian if I have made errors ☺

July 14, 2018

Grazie per l'apprezzamento! :-)

Please correct my Italian if I have made errors.

If you wish...

Avere dieci lingotti.

Here we need the imperative mood.
Avere is the infinitive, while the imperative for the 2nd person singular would be abbi (irregular).
In Italian though we don't say "have something", but "here is (something) to/for you":

  • Eccoti (ecco + ti) dieci lingotti.


prendili (imperative, 2nd person singular)

per il vostro sforzo

per il tuo sforzo

i discenti

This is correct for university students, as opposed to il docente ("the teacher"). But it sounds quite formal, and it is seldom used outside academic contexts.
Gli studenti would be more appropriate.

I hope this may help.

July 14, 2018

Grazie per la correzione!! You are super helpful.

July 14, 2018

Civius! Vi faccio notare che il messaggio era formale, decisamente formale, tanto da darVi del voi! In tal contesto "i discenti" era più che giustificato, Voi non credete? Giusto l'infinito della prima frase era decisamente fuori luogo.

A proposito del contenuto speravo di potervi suggerire qualcosa, ma temo di non sapervi consigliare alcunché. :-)

July 14, 2018

Posso accettare il 'voi' solo da chi mi parla in romanesco e mi chiama sor mae'. :-D :-D
Altrimenti in un forum il 'tu' va più che bene.

July 14, 2018

Grazie Civis! It is not possible to adequately express how helpful you are to all of us learning Italian.

July 16, 2018

There is no need for that.
But thanks for the appreciation. :-)

July 16, 2018

Ciao Michael. I happily share my newfound word with you:-)

July 16, 2018

Brava Linda! I have added incommensurabile to my list of favorite new words.

Civis, il valore del tuo aiuto per tutti noi e incommensurabile. Molto apprezzato!

July 16, 2018

Michael, piacere. È una parola che scorre così bene. A dopo...

July 16, 2018

Grazie CivisRomanus! Ti do un lingotto di valore incommensurabile:-))

July 14, 2018

Incommensurabile... (✱__✱) Wow! Thank you Linda!
Within a short while you'll be teaching me new Italian words!

July 14, 2018

That'll be the day! But seriously, I wanted to say "immeasurable" because prezioso did not seem strong enough. My trusty translator gave me "incom..... ..le", a rather fabulous word, so I rather enjoyed using it. (Will keep to prezioso in future, perhaps:-)

July 14, 2018

It was absolutely correct (right word, right context), I'm really very impressed!
According to the forum's search engine, you are the first and only DL user who ever wrote incommensurabile in a post. Umberto Eco would have called this a hapax legomenon. :-D

July 15, 2018

Caro CivisRomanus, questo post è molto lungo. Lo leggerò dopo i Mondiali. Adesso sono impegnata a tifare per la mia squadra. :-)

July 14, 2018

Certo! Forza Croazia!!

(così mi sono fatto un po' di nuovi amici francesi)

July 15, 2018

Grazie mille! Ci servirà molta forza e una buona dose di fortuna, perché sono molto bravi. Incrocio le dita. :-)

July 15, 2018


July 15, 2018

Sono contenta ed orgogliosa della mia squadra. Hanno giocato bene, ma la fortuna non era sul nostro lato. Magari la prossima volta... :-)

July 15, 2018

I assume you meant my complaint. Thank you for the full and simplified explanation!

July 14, 2018

Well... now you'll have to study it. I really don't envy you. :-D

(I'm joking, of course!)

July 14, 2018

Ma che posso dire altro che ti ringrazio molto CivisRomanus (ancora una volta)!

July 14, 2018

Grazie a tutti voi, che ancora mi sopportate. :-D

July 14, 2018

Per un momento ho creduto che mi hai dato il "voi" e poi ho visto che lo scrivi con la minuscola.

P.S. E' colpa di Markchjo

July 14, 2018


July 15, 2018


July 14, 2018

Thank you so much for this -- it's exactly what I was looking for!

September 12, 2018
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