Potere, volere, dovere in the past: Italian grammar lesson 107

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potere past
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Potere, volere, dovere in Italian

The verbs potere (can / to be able to), dovere (must / to have to) and volere (to want) are modal verbs.

Modal verbs are “helping verbs” that are always used before another verb to express the possibility, obligation or will to perform that action.

In this lesson, we will look at how to use potere, volere and dovere in the past, specifically in the passato prossimo.

Gli ho voluto parlare per non avere problemi.

I wanted to talk to him so not to have any problems.

Non sei potuto andare?

Couldn’t you go?

Abbiamo dovuto lavorare tutto il giorno.

We had to work for the whole day.

Passato prossimo: essere or avere?

dovere past italian

The passato prossimo of verbs in Italian is formed by conjugating the verb essere (to be) or avere (to have) in the present tense and adding the past participle of the verb we want to use.

The past participle of potere, volere and dovere are potuto, voluto, dovuto.But how do we decide if we need to use essere or avere?

Usually, we decide depending on the verb we are conjugating. However, potere, volere and dovere can actually form the passato prossimo both with essere and avere, so how do we choose?

We choose which one to use based on the verb that the modal is “helping“, which is the verb that we leave in the infinitive form.

For example:

Siamo potuti andare.

We could go.

Here, we use the verb essere because it is required by the verb andare (to go), and not by potere.

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On the other hand, we could say:

Non abbiamo potuto decidere.

We could not decide.

In this case, we used the verb avere to form the passato prossimo because it is required by the verb decidere (to be able to).

Passato prossimo: conjugations

volere past italian

Here are the conjugations of the verbs potere, volere and dovere in the passato prossimo.


Subject Essere potuto Avere potuto
io sono potuto/a ho potuto
tu sei potuto/a hai potuto
lui / lei è potuto/a ha potuto
noi siamo potuti/e abbiamo potuto
voi siete potuti/e avete potuto
loro sono potuti/e hanno potuto

Remember, when we use the verb essere to form the passato prossimo the past participle of potere, volere and dovere must agree in gender and number to the subject.


Subject Essere Avere
io sono voluto/a ho voluto
tu sei voluto/a hai voluto
lui / lei è voluto/a ha voluto
noi siamo voluti/e abbiamo voluto
voi siete voluti/e avete voluto
loro sono voluti/e hanno voluto


Subject Essere Avere
io sono dovuto/a ho dovuto
tu sei dovuto/a hai dovuto
lui / lei è dovuto/a ha dovuto
noi siamo dovuti/e abbiamo dovuto
voi siete dovuti/e avete dovuto
loro sono dovuti/e hanno dovuto

Potere, volere, dovere in the past: examples

Practice with Quizlet

Here's a set of flashcards and quizzes to practice this grammar topic.

voluto potuto dovuto italian

Let’s have a look at some examples of these modal verbs so that you will feel comfortable using them in context!


Sei potuto andare in banca?

Could you go to the bank?

Non avete potuto fare la spesa?

You were not able to go grocery shopping?


Siamo volute arrivare in anticipo per salutarti.

We wanted to arrive early to say hi to you.

Non hanno voluto parlarne.

They did not want to talk about it.


Dov’è Chiara?
È dovuta uscire.

Where is Chiara?
She had to go out.

Ho dovuto programmare tutta la giornata per i bambini.

I had to plan the whole day out for the kids.

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