The verb potere in Italian is the equivalent of the verb “to be able to”, also encompassing “can” and “may”, in English. Moreover, potere is also the Italian for “power”, both literally (it is a noun: il potere = the power) and figuratively: mastering the potere conjugation will really step up your Italian skills and give you great language powers!
In this article we will look at how to use the Italian verb potere correctly, how to conjugate it in the main tenses used in speaking and writing, and when to use it in context with examples and dialogues.
Are you ready? Let’s get started!
Potere is an irregular verb of the second conjugation, which means it does not follow the regular pattern for the verbs ending in -ERE, and it is used to express someone’s ability, freedom or capacity to do something. We will look at its uses more in detail below.
Potere is also a modal (or helping) verb, just like volere (to want or have the will to), sapere (to know how to) and dovere (to have to). These verbs are always followed by another verb, and they define and describe the “mode” of the action.
In Italian, we call these verbi modali o servili.
Now that you know the basics, let’s see how and when to use this verb. We use potere in Italian much like you would “to be able to”.
This verb is therefore employed in questions to ask for permission to do something, in affirmations to state that we can or are able to do something, and in its negative form to express an impediment or a prohibition.
- Posso usare la tua macchina stasera?
Can I use your car tonight?
- Stasera possiamo uscire, però domani no.
We can go out tonight, but not tomorrow.
- Non sono potuta andare al mare quest’anno, avevo troppo lavoro.
I could not (wasn’t able to) go to the seaside this year, I had too much work.
As in English, it is quite a vague verb, so we do not really know the reasons behind it: it can express ability/inability or permission/prohibition.
The only thing we know is that usually, when using potere, the possibility or impossibility of doing something depends on other people or external circumstances.
Now, in many languages you can use the equivalent of “can” or “be able to” to talk about your skills. This is NOT the case in Italian.
You CAN NEVER use potere to describe your skills or abilities! To do this, we have different verbs:
When followed by a verb, sapere takes the meaning of “knowing how to”, which means it describes an acquired ability.
- Io so nuotare, e tu?
I can (know how to) swim, and you?
ESSERE CAPACE DI
The meaning and use of essere capace is very close to sapere.
- Sei capace di guidare?
Do you know how to drive?
While with the two previous verbs we are talking about a learned skill or ability, riuscire a is more about personal (mental or physical) capability.
- Non riesco a studiare con questa musica.
I am not able to study with this music.
Let’s see more examples with all these verbs, so to better understand and remember the difference between them:
- Martin sa giocare a calcio, ma oggi non può andare alla partita perché ha un esame.
Martin can play soccer, but he cannot go to the match today because he has an exam.
- Lucia sa suonare la chitarra ma non riesce perché le fa male una mano.
Lucia can play the guitar, but she can’t because her hand hurts.
- Siamo capaci di guidare ma non possiamo perché non abbiamo la patente.
We are able to drive, but can’t because we do not have the license.
Before looking at the conjugation of the verb, we need to clear up some things. These points will help you to choose the correct helping verb for the compound tenses (verbs formed by more than one word), and to really speak like a native!
Potere is a transitive verb, which means it always takes a direct object. In the case of modal verbs, the object is always a verb. See the object in bold below:
- Posso andare al bagno?
Can I go to the bathroom?
- Noi non possiamo venire.
We can’t come.
As we just mentioned, a compound tense is formed by more than one word. Usually, it is made up of an auxiliary verb (essere or avere) and a past participle.
Knowing the conjugations of the auxiliary and the participle of the verb potere will allow you to form all the compound tenses… Isn’t that great?
The past participle of the verb potere is potuto. When we use the verb essere as an auxiliary, it will change according to the number and gender of the subject:
- Masculine singular:
- Io sono potuto…
- Io sono potuto…
- Feminine singular
- Io sono potuta…
- Io sono potuta…
- Masculine plural
- Noi siamo potuti…
- Noi siamo potuti…
- Feminine plural
- Noi siamo potute…
- Noi siamo potute…
When forming compound tenses, the modal verb potere can take both auxiliaries essere (to be) and avere (to have):
- Io ho potuto… / io sono potuta… (female speaker)
- Non abbiamo potuto… / non siamo potuti…
What does this depend on?
Choosing between essere (to be) and avere (to have) always depends on the verb that comes after potere. As we just mentioned, potere is a helping verb, which means it will take the verb that the verb it is helping needs.
And how do you know if a verb takes essere (to be) or avere (to have) in compound tenses? There are some general rules, but the easiest way to be sure is to check an Italian dictionary! In brackets, after the verb, you will find the words “auxiliary verb”, which will tell you all you need to know!
TIP: Remember, if you use the auxiliary verb essere (to be), the past participle of the compound tense will have to agree in gender and number with the subject! (In this case you will need to choose between potuto, potuta, potuti, potute.)
- Uscire (to go out) takes essere as an auxiliary verb:
Non siamo potute uscire ieri sera.
We could not go out last night.
- Chiamare (to call / ring) takes avere as an auxiliary verb:
Avresti potuto chiamarmi!
You could have called me!
Now, we’re ready for the conjugations!
Now that we’ve seen all the basics and learned when and how we can use the verb potere (and when we can’t!), let’s look at its conjugation.
Here, you’ll find all the conjugations you need divided into levels: from beginners to advanced (and up to those tenses even some native Italian speakers get wrong!).
In the following tables, we will use the verb avere (to have) as the auxiliary to build compound tenses.
Don’t forget, though, that potere also takes essere (to be) when the verb it is helping need that auxiliary. (And do not forget to change the participle so that it agrees in gender and number with the subject!)
First, let’s look at the conjugations for the most used verbs in the indicative mood: the present (presente), simple future (futuro semplice), imperfect (imperfetto), and present perfect (passato prossimo).
The indicative mood is a verb form used to make statements, ask questions and express facts and opinions. If you are starting to learn Italian, these are the first verb tenses you will need, for sure!
|Lui / Lei||può||poteva||ha potuto||potrà|
- Marco non poteva mai uscire durante la settimana quando era adolescente.
Marco could never go out during the week when he was a teenager.
- Avete potuto scaricare il file della presentazione?
Could you download the file for the presentation?
- Tra un paio di settimane farà più caldo e potremo uscire in bici.
In a couple of weeks it will be warmer, and we’ll be able to go cycling.
In this section we will look at some more conjugations in the indicative mood: past perfect (trapassato prossimo), preterite (passato remoto), past preterite (trapassato remoto) and future perfect (futuro anteriore).
These are more complex (or used more rarely, especially in spoken language) and are all compound tenses, except the passato remoto.
This means you will just need to learn the conjugations for essere and avere and add the past participle potuto.
|Trapassato prossimo||Passato remoto||Trapassato Remoto||Futuro anteriore|
|Io||avevo potuto||potetti/potei||ebbi potuto||avrò potuto|
|Tu||avevi potuto||potesti||avesti potuto||avrai potuto|
|Lui / Lei||aveva potuto||potette/poté||ebbe potuto||avrà potuto|
|Noi||avevamo potuto||potemmo||avemmo potuto||avremo potuto|
|Voi||avevate potuto||poteste||aveste potuto||avrete potuto|
|Loro||avevano potuto||potettero/poterono||ebbero potuto||avranno potuto|
- Non potemmo arrivare in tempo per la cerimonia.
We could not get there on time for the ceremony.
- Non so se avrò potuto finirlo entro domani.
I do not know if I will have been able to finish it by tomorrow.
- Non mi ero potuta preparare per l’esame, quindi non ci andai.
I could not prepare for the exam, so I did not go.
Here we will look at the conditional mood of the verb potere, used to talk about facts or events that depend on a certain condition, and the subjunctive mood, which expresses hypothetical situations or wishes, demands and suggestions.
|Condizionale presente||Condizionale passato|
|Lui / Lei||potrebbe||avrebbe potuto|
- Potremmo andare a cena fuori stasera.
We could go out for dinner tonight.
- Avrei potuto dirtelo prima, mi dispiace.
I could have told you earlier, I am sorry.
|Congiuntivo presente||Congiuntivo passato||Congiuntivo Imperfetto||Congiuntivo trapassato|
|Che io||possa||abbia potuto||potessi||avessi potuto|
|Che tu||possa||abbia potuto||potessi||avessi potuto|
|Che lui / lei||possa||abbia potuto||potesse||avesse potuto|
|Che noi||possiamo||abbiamo potuto||potessimo||avessimo potuto|
|Che voi||possiate||abbiate potuto||poteste||aveste potuto|
|Che loro||possano||abbiano potuto||potessero||avessero potuto|
- Spero davvero che tu possa trovare una soluzione.
I really hope you can find a solution.
- Non credo che abbia potuto finire tutto da solo.
I do not think he was able to finish everything on his own.
- Pensavo che potessero venire anche i tuoi genitori, perché non ci sono?
I thought your parents were going to be able to come too, why are they not here?
The verb potere does not have a conjugation in the imperative mood, but here are some more details on its verbals: the infinitive, participle and gerund.
|Passato (past)||avere potuto||potuto||avendo potuto|
TIP: The present participle, potente, means powerful and iit can be used as a noun or an adjective! And the present infinitive, potere, can also be used as a noun meaning “power”.
- È una macchina molto potente.
It is a very powerful car.
- Il potere delle parole è sempre sottovalutato.
The power of words is always underrated.
I hope this guide on the conjugation of potere was useful!
Before you go, let’s see some more examples of the verb potere in context.
Try to find the difference between potere and the other verbs we’ve seen in this article (sapere, riuscire, essere capace, etc.)
|Lucio||Ciao Mari, come stai? Sei potuta andare a Roma alla fine?||Hello Mari, how are you? Could you go to Rome in the end?|
|Marina||No, non sono riuscita a convincere Carlo, e non volevo andare da sola!||No, I could not convince Carlo, and did not want to go on my own!|
|Lucio||E perché? Tu sai guidare, no?||Why? You know how to drive, right?|
|Marina||Sì, sono capace, ma non mi piace!||Yes, I do, but i do not like it!|
|Lucio||Avresti potuto dirmelo, io sarei venuto con te!||You could have told me, I would have gone with you!|
|Marina||Ah sì? Allora se puoi andiamo settimana prossima!||Really? Then, if you can, let’s go next week!|