The four modal verbs or verbi servili – Potere, volere, dovere and sapere (when it expresses an ability), are some of the most commonly used verbs in Italian, and are also all irregular verbs so it is important to learn them. Modal verbs are used to indicate an ability, obligation, a desire or a permission to do something and are usually followed by a verb in the infinitive tense.
Non posso andare al cinema – I can not go to the cinema.
Oggi devo studiare l’italiano – I have to study Italian today.
Voglio leggere questo libro – I want to read this book.
So nuotare ma non posso nuotare oggi – I can swim (I know how to swim) but I can’t swim today.
Conjugating modal verbs (Present tense)
Modal verbs and compound tenses
Compound tenses are tenses such as passato prossimo and trapassato prossimo. When using modal verbs with these tenses you need to understand what auxiliary to use with them. Usually this would follow the same rule as you would follow if using the verb in the infinitive form (avere or essere).
Example using passato prossimo:
Ho potuto parlare francese con lui – I was able to speak French with him.
Sono potuto andare al cinema – I was able to go to the cinema.
Ho voluto prendere il treno per Milano – I had to take the train to Milan.
Non ha saputo nuotare – I didn’t know how to swim.
Sono dovuta andare al supermercato – I had to go to the supermarket.
Ha dovuto salvare il gatto – He had to save the cat.