Understanding Italian Modal Verbs Posted by Geoff on Aug 1, 2017 in Grammar
Volere (to want), dovere (to have to) and potere (to be able to) are the three so called modal verbs. As verbs go, they are not particularly difficult to conjugate … until you need to use them in the present perfect (passato prossimo). Then things start to get really interesting!
A prerequisite to understanding how to conjugate these verbs in the passato prossimo is a knowledge of how transitive and intransitive verbs work. I strongly recommend, therefore, that you study our recent post Italian Transitive And Intransitive Verbs before trying to tackle this one.
The best way to illustrate how modal verbs work in the passato prossimo is with practical example of their usage. But first, let’s just break down a couple of instances in order to clarify their grammatical construction.
Modal verbs used in intransitive constructions
Let’s imagine that we want to tell a friend: “Last week I went to Rome”. Andare (to go) is an intransitive verb, which uses the auxiliary verb essere in the passato prossimo. This gives us: “la settimana scorsa sono andato/a a Roma”.
Now we’re going to say: “Last week I had to go to Rome”. For this construction we need to use the modal verb dovere (to have to). Here’s how it looks: “La settimana scorsa sono dovuto andare a Roma”.
N.B. Beware that although it’s grammatically correct to use essere in the above construction, it’s also extremely common to hear avere used instead in everyday spoken Italian, i.e: “La settimana scorsa ho dovuto andare a Roma”.
To clarify: “La settimana scorsa sono dovuto andare a Roma” is grammatically correct, so this is the construction that you should learn. But be prepared to hear “La settimana scorsa ho dovuto andare a Roma” in everyday conversation.
Modal verbs used in transitive constructions
This time we’re going to tell our friend: “I visited my aunt in Rome”. Visitare is a transitive verb, and therefore we need to use the auxiliary verb avere (to have) in the passato prossimo, hence: “ho visitato mia zia a Roma”.
Now let’s change that statement to: “I had to visit my aunt in Rome”. Once again, we use the modal verb dovere (to have to) to construct the following sentence: “ho dovuto visitare mia zia a Roma”.
The above examples illustrate the following:
The choice of which auxiliary verb to use (essere or avere) follows exactly the same rules as any other construction in the passato prossimo:
sono andato (I went)
ho visitato (I visited)
The past participle of the modal verb (in this case dovere) is inserted between the auxiliary verb and the infinitive of main verb:
sono dovuto andare (I had to go)
ho dovuto visitare (I had to visit)
So far, we’ve only looked at constructions using the modal verb dovere, but here’s the easy bit: all three modal verbs, volere, dovere and potere follow exactly the same rules, as illustrated in the following tale:
I wanted to take the eight o’clock bus to the market
Ho voluto prendere l’autobus delle otto per il mercarto
I couldn’t take the chickens on the bus because there was no room!
Non ho potuto portare le galline sull’autobus perché non c’era spazio!
I had to get off the bus because I felt sick
Sono dovuta scendere dall’autobus perché mi è venuta la nausea
My husband had to come and get me with the donkey
Mio marito è dovuto venire a prendermi con l’asino
We had to ride home together on the donkey
Siamo dovuti tornare a casa assieme a dorso d’asino
My husband wasn’t very happy because he wanted to milk the cow
Mio marito non era molto contento perché voleva mungere la mucca
Instead, he had to save his poor wife
Invece ha dovuto salvare la povera moglie
Next time, I’ll go to the market with the donkey and cart. The chickens can ride in the back!
La prossima volta vado al mercato con l’asino e il carretto. Le galline possono viaggiare dietro!
Did you notice that I wrote perché voleva mungere la mucca instead of perché ha voluto mungere la mucca?
This will be explained in a future blog, so stay tuned …
Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.