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


Dive into the heart of Italian with this guide on using the essential modal verbs potere, dovere, and volere in the past tense. Master the nuances of passato prossimo and chat like a local!

  • Modal Verbs 101: Get the lowdown on potere (to be able to), dovere (to have to), and volere (to want). They’re your go-to sidekicks for expressing can, must, and want in Italian. 🇮🇹
  • Passato Prossimo Puzzle: Crack the code on using essere or avere with these verbs. Hint: it’s all about the action verb they’re paired with. Choose wisely to sound like a native! 😉
  • Conjugation Station: Don’t just memorize—understand! Each modal verb has its own past participle: potuto, voluto, and dovuto. Get these down, and you’re golden. 🌟
  • Gender Bender: Remember, when essere is your helper verb, your past participle needs to match the subject’s gender and number. It’s like Italian fashion—always coordinated! 👗👔
  • Real Talk: Use examples to practice. Ask if someone could go to the bank (Sei potuto andare in banca?) or express that you wanted to arrive early (Siamo volute arrivare in anticipo). It’s all about context! 💬

My thoughts

What are potere, dovere, and volere in Italian?

The verbs potere (can or to be able to), dovere (must or 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, dovere, and volere in the past, specifically in the passato prossimo.

Gli ho voluto parlare per non avere problemi.

I wanted to talk to him so as 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.

What to use with passato prossimo: essere or avere?

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.

Here are the following past participles of the three verbs:

  • Potere is potuto
  • Volere is voluto
  • Dovere is 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 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 because it is required by the verb decidere (to be able to).

What are the conjugations of passato prossimo?

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


Subject Essere Avere
io sono potuto/potuta ho potuto
tu sei potuto/potuta hai potuto
lui / lei è potuto/potuta ha potuto
noi siamo potuti/potute abbiamo potuto
voi siete potuti/potute avete potuto
loro sono potuti/potute 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/voluta ho voluto
tu sei voluto/voluta hai voluto
lui / lei è voluto/voluta ha voluto
noi siamo voluti/volute abbiamo voluto
voi siete voluti/volute avete voluto
loro sono voluti/volute hanno voluto


Subject Essere Avere
io sono dovuto/dovuta ho dovuto
tu sei dovuto/dovuta hai dovuto
lui / lei è dovuto/dovuta ha dovuto
noi siamo dovuti/dovute abbiamo dovuto
voi siete dovuti/dovute avete dovuto
loro sono dovuti/dovute 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.

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

  • Potere

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?

  • Volere

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.

  • Dovere

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.

What do "potere", "volere", and "dovere" mean in Italian?

They are modal verbs that express ability, desire, and obligation, respectively. "Potere" means can or to be able to, "volere" means want or to want to, and "dovere" means must or to have to.

How do I use "potere", "volere", and "dovere" in Italian sentences?

To use them in Italian sentences, conjugate the modal verb according to the subject, followed by the infinitive form of the main verb. For example: Posso parlare italiano (I can speak Italian), Vuole mangiare la pizza (He/She wants to eat pizza), and Devi studiare per l'esame (You must study for the exam).

Are there any irregularities when conjugating "potere", "volere", and "dovere"?

They are irregular verbs, meaning their conjugations do not follow the standard patterns for -ere verbs. It is essential to memorize their conjugations to use them correctly in sentences. For example, the first person singular conjugations in the present tense are posso (I can), voglio (I want), and devo (I must).

Italian word of the day
Hai voglia di fare una passeggiata?
Do you feel like going for a walk?
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4 Responses

  1. Ciao,
    After completing lesson 107, I am confused because it seems like another way of saying the same things from lesson 106. For example, would it be correct to say “Volevo andare al mare” or Ho voluto andare al mare”, or is either way ok? Or is there a way to know which form to use? Thank you!

    1. Ciao Mike!

      Grammar notes #106 and #107 talk about modal verbs (used before another verb) potere, volere, and dovere in the imperfect tense and in the past. That’s why you find it so similar.

      While we use the imperfect to describe past actions that were repeated in the past, we use the passato prossimo for describing past events that have an effect on the present or happened during a limited time.
      At this link you can find more information about when to use one or the other.

      Regarding your question about the sentences, both are correct but they have different meanings. The first one expresses a past desire and the second one talks about an event in the past.

      Please let us know if you have any other question or doubt.

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