Modal Verbs in the Italian Language: 5 Common Mistakes

In this lesson we will talk about a very important topic of Italian grammar: modal verbs. In Italian, like in many other languages, modal verbs (volere, dovere, potere e sapere) are quite particular verbs: they can be used alone or followed by another verbe in the infinitive form. Also, each verb has some very clear shades of meaning. These verbs are used very frequently in the Italian language, even hundreds of times a day. And since they are so frequently present in our language, it’s important to use them correctly. This can be hard at times, and that’s why we made this video about the 5 most common mistakes concerning modal verbs.

The 5 most common mistakes with Italian modal verbs


One of the most common mistakes concerning modal verbs is about the difference between POTERE and SAPERE. This can be different to understand for those who study Italian as a foreign language.

In particular, a lot of people use the verb “potere” instead of “sapere” when they are talking about an ability.


Io posso cantare molto bene

Mia madre può cucinare divinamente

Voi potete ballare il tango argentino

But why is it incorrect? Let’s see in more detail the meaning of these two verbs:

  • Potere is used when the ability to perform or to not perform an action depends on the will of other people, circumstances, restrictions or external obligations. (EX: Giovanni non può nuotare perché la piscina è chiusa —> the fact that the swimming pool is closed is an external circumstance that doesn’t allow Giovanni to swim)
  • Sapere is used to describe a skill or ability of someone acquired over time. In other words, when we’re talking about someone who has learnt to do something. (EX: Giovanni sa nuotare molto bene perché frequenta la scuola di nuoto da quando aveva 5 anni)

I’ll give you a final example to understand better the difference:

Giovanni sa nuotare, (skill acquired over time)

ma dato che la piscina è chiusa, (external circumstance)

oggi non può nuotare.


Another common mistake is to use the verb sapere instead of conoscere, in particular when talking about people.

But the two verbs are used in very specific situations, therefore they should not be confused.

In particular, when we’re talking about people, the correct verb to use is always “CONOSCERE”.


Conosco Lucia da molti anni.

Finalmente i genitori di Stefania hanno conosciuto il suo fidanzato.

Also, CONOSCERE can be used to indicate that one knows certain places, things, concepts because he has seen, studied or explored them.


Conosce tutte le poesie di Pascoli a memoria.

Conosco bene la città di Firenze perché ci ho vissuto per molti mesi.

Conosci un buon ristorante da queste parti?

As you may notice, CONOSCERE is always followed by a NOUN. Never a verb.

On the other hand, SAPERE indicates that one has become aware of something (facts, information, news) by chance or because of certain circumstances.

Unlike CONOSCERE, SAPERE can be followed by a noun but also by CHE/DI + verb.


So che vi siete parlati, ma non sono arrabbiata.

Sanno di essere nel torto e per questo sono disposti a fare qualsiasi cosa.

Non sappiamo gli orari dei treni: dovremmo cercarli sul sito.


Another very common mistake is to think of “dovere” only as a modal verb.

Actually, DOVERE has also another meaning: be obliged to do something or be required to perform a certain activity because you owe someone one.


Grazie per aver comprato i biglietti anche per noi: ti dobbiamo un favore!

Quanto le devo per la riparazione della mia auto?

Forse non te ne sei accorto, ma ti devo la vita!

When it has this meaning, the verb DOVERE is followed by a direct object, a noun or a pronoun.


It is well-known that the subjunctive mood raises doubts, but it is even more complicated to use when in the main clause there is a a verb that expresses will or desire (to want, to desire…) in the conditional form.

In this case, there’s no need to be in doubt, because when there is a main clause with a verb that expresses will or desire in the conditional form you use the imperfect subjunctive (not present) to express the contemporaneity of that action in the present moment. Always!


Vorrei che tu venissi con me in farmacia.

Vorremmo che tu svolgessi il tuo lavoro più velocemente.

Vorresti che noi prenotassimo un massaggio anche per te?


Ah…”potere”! How much trouble with this verb!

We have seen that “potere” is often confused with the verb SAPERE to express ability.

But very often, it is also used in place of RIUSCIRE. Ahi ahi ahi…

The verb potere, as pointed out in point 1 of this article, indicates that the ability to do something depends on other people or external circumstances.

The verb riuscire, instead, is used to indicate that the ability to do something depends strictly on ourselves, on our mental or physical skills.


Non riesco a parlare perché ho mal di gola. —> I’m not in the best shape to do that because of a physical impediment

Non possiamo uscire oggi, perché dobbiamo finire il progetto. —> external circumstances don’t allow us to go out today

Well, that’s all we had to say about modal verbs and the 5 most common mistakes. If you liked this article, you should have a look at the one about the 5 most common mistakes concerning QUALCOSA.

And don’t forget to read our book Italiano Colloquiale: Parole ed Espressioni per Tutti i Giorni!

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