How to say can in Italian: potere

The English verb “can” is often translated in Italian with potere. As other frequently used verbs, potere is an irregular verb, meaning that it does not follow the same pattern as other second conjugation verbs.

Potere is also a modal verb (or so-called helper verb) and is followed by a verb in the  infinitive tense. Modal verbs are also called helper verbs because their function is to “help” another verb, by communicating intention, possibility, need, or ability.

Potere has two main meanings:

  • It expresses the possibility to do something depending on external circumstances (as in “can” or “to be able to”)
  • It expresses permission to do something (as in “may”)

Potere: Examples

Let’s look at some sentences to see when it’s suitable to use the verb potere.

  • To express the possibility to do something depending on external circumstances:

Oggi piove, non possiamo andare al mare.

Today is raining, we can’t go to the beach.

Marisa ha un forte mal di gola, non può parlare.

Marisa has a bad sore throat, she is not able to talk.

Non ti abbiamo potuto aspettare, altrimenti avremmo perso il treno.

We couldn’t wait for you, otherwise we would have missed the train.

  • To ask or express permission to do something:

Posso farti una domanda?

Can I ask you a question?

Non posso andare alla festa perché i miei genitori non vogliono.

I can’t go to the party because my parents don’t want me to go.

Come posso aiutarla?

How may I help you? (formal)

Other meanings of can: sapere and riuscire

Potere is not the only Italian verb used to express the meaning of the English verb “can”.

Sapere + infinitive

When “can” means “to be able to do something” or “to know how to do something” it is translated with sapere + infinitive, as in:

Sai pattinare?

Can you skate? (as in: do you know how to skate?)

Riuscire

When “can” means “to manage to do something” or “to succeed in doing something” it is translated with riuscire, as in:

Non riesco a tradurre questa frase.

I can’t translate this sentence (as in: I can’t manage to translate this sentence properly)

Non riesco a capire Giorgio, parla troppo velocemente.

I can’t understand Giorgio, he speaks too fast.

Abbiamo risparmiato tanti anni, e finalmente siamo riusciti a comprare un appartamento.

We have been saving money for many years, and finally we managed to buy an apartment.

Audio lessons to practice potere (can)

To practice potere (can), take Lesson 20 of the Italian audio course “Ripeti con me!“.

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