Potere means “to can” or “to be able to,” and is classified as a modal, or helping verb. This means that potere provides information about the ability of the speaker to “be able to” complete the main action described in a sentence. When used in this way, potere is conjugated to reflect the speaker and the action verb follows directly after in its infinitive form — that is, the action verb is not conjugated! (Remember that Italian verbs are categorized into three infinitive forms by the following endings: -are, -ere, and -ire, and that English infinitive verbs are preceded by “to,” as in, “to go,” “to stay,” etc.)
One can imagine the infinite number of uses for a helping verb with the meanings of potere. This blog will focus the use of potere as a verb of politeness, and with emphasis on how to use the third person, or Lei (polite you) conjugation, which is può. Può translates literally as “he/she can” and “you (polite) can.” For purposes of this blog, in order to demonstrate the use of può to mean “polite you” in a question, the translation will be given as the softer English “could.”
One simple way to use potere while traveling in Italy is to connect the “polite you” conjugation of potere, which is “può” with an action verb in the infinitive.
This will enable travelers to ask for whatever they need with the polite phrase, “Could you…?”
Of course, polite communication is essential to show respect for others in any language and it is especially important when traveling in Italy to make a good impression, or fare una bella figura!
The beauty of this method, which uses [può + infinitive verb] to pose a question, is that it is easy to ask for assistance during the course of a typical day. For instance, if one were to direct another to act in a specific manner with a statement in Italian (instead of using a question formulated with può) the polite Italian command form would be required. And the polite command form in Italian is relayed with a verb conjugated in the subjunctive mood — a complex form covered in advanced Italian. However, when the request is made with a question that starts with può, the subjunctive conjugation is no longer necessary! Even knowledge of the complete conjugation of potere is not required!
The traveler only needs to remember the helping verb può and the meaning of the action verb for what they need.
There is essentially no need to conjugate using this method!
Italian travelers can ask for help understanding fluent Italian, with the many simple transactions of daily life, with directions and transportation needs, and while dining at a restaurant simply by using [può + infinitive verb]. Further discussion of how to use può as a traveler is given below for several different situations, after the present tense conjuration.
Finally, we will also discuss how to use the first person singular and plural conjugations of potere, which are posso and possiamo to ask for what one needs at an Italian restaurant.
Of course, the phrases given will serve as examples and this method can be extrapolated to many different situations!
How to Conjugate Potere
Potere is an irregular -ere verb in the present tense. As noted above, for many reasons, and especially to be polite in Italian, this verb is essential to commit to memory!
The complete present tense conjugation of potere is below, with the important conjugations of politeness that are the focus of this blog in green: io (I), “Lei” (polite you) and noi (we).
Use Può to Ask for What You Need!
1. Use può if you are having difficulty understanding fluent Italian.
- Può is an important conjugation of potere for the beginning student of Italian to remember for when he or she needs help conversing with a fluent speaker.
- [Può + parlare + adverb] is a polite way to direct someone to speak Italian in way that is helpful to you. Start a sentence with può and then add the infinitive verb parlare and an adverb requesting another to speak more slowly or loudly, for instance. To be even more polite, start your request with, “Per favore…” or “Per piacere…” for “Please…”
- Notice from the examples below how the Italian adverb “più,” which means “more,” is also helpful in this situation.
- [Può + ripetere] can be used in a simple phrase to ask someone to repeat what they’ve just said. You can also start a sentence with [può + ripetere] and build your Italian sentence one phrase at a time to describe what you’d like in more detail, as with the last examples in the table below.
|…parlare più lentamente?
|…speak more slowly?
|…parlare più piano?
|…speak more slowly?
|…parlare più forte?
|…speak more loudly?
|…parlare in inglese?
|…speak in English?
|Could you repeat (that)?
|Could you repeat…
|…che ha detto lui?*
|…what he said?
|…che ha detto lei?*
|…what she said?
|…che hanno detto loro?*
|…what they said?
…le direzioni per il duomo?
…the directions to the cathedral?
…l’informazione sullo spettacolo?
…the information about the show?
(one piece of information)
…le informazioni per la riunione di domani?
…the information for the meeting tomorrow?
(more than one piece of information)
*When a sentence or question starts with che, the subject pronoun is given at the end if one wants to emphasize or clarify who the subject is. Otherwise, the verb ending corresponds to the speaker, as usual.
2. Use può at the service station to ask for assistance with your car
- For those brave enough to rent a car in Italy, assistance from a service station may be necessary. Some useful infinitive verbs that can be used after the polite request is made with può are given below.
- In some places in Italy, it may still be possible to ask for assistance filling up a car with gasoline with the phrase “fare il pieno.” Or, at least, one may still see the gas station attendant conversing with a customer in Italian movies from the 1950s and 60s. Although a polite sentence can be made with può in this case, “Può fare il pieno?” “Can you fill it up?” a shortened phrase is usually used, such as, “Il pieno, per favore!” for “Fill it up, please!”
|…caricare la batteria?
|…charge the battery?
|…check the oil?
|…check the water?
|…controllare le gomme?
|…check the tires?
|…cambiare la gomma?
|…change the tire?
|…aggiustare la gomma che è a terra?
|fix the flat tire?
|…riparare la gomma che è a terra?
|…fix the flat tire?
3. Use “Mi può… ” for every day, simple interactions
- A simple question to ask if you are paying in cash and need change uses [mi può + portare] for “Can you bring me…?” Remember that in Italian the pronoun “mi” for “me” comes before the conjugated verb, while in English the pronoun is placed after the verb.
- The Italian pronoun Lei, for “polite you” is left out of the sentence, which, along with the word order can complicate things a bit. But, just remember that in this case we are using a method that specifies può means “polite you.” And, with this method, we don’t have to worry about the conjugating an Italian verb! With this method we can ask for change s follows:
Mi può portare il resto, per favore? Could you bring me the change, please?
- Of course, the verb portare can also be used to refer to a person, such as when a taxi is needed to transport someone from one location to another. In this case, just give the address after the phrase “Mi puo portare…” For a proper Italian sentence, remember to use the correct preposition and to put the street number for the address after the street name!
Mi può portare in via Verde? Could you bring me to Green Street?
Mi può portare a via Melzo 10? Could you bring me 10 Melzo Street?
- To ask the concierge at a hotel to call you a taxi, use [mi può + chiamare] for “Can/Could you call me…” In this case, the Italian “mi” serves as the indirect object pronoun “for me.”
Mi può chiamare un taxi? Can you call a taxi for me?
- To ask a shopkeeper to show you an article of clothing or other item of interest, use [mi può + mostrare] for “Can/Could you show me…”
Mi può mostrare una camicia bianca? Can you show me a white shirt?
4. Use [Mi può + dire…] to ask for assistance with directions
- When visiting an unfamiliar city, it may be necessary to ask a stranger for help. In Italy, it is customary to begin this type of conversation with “mi scusi” for “excuse me” (polite command).
- Then, an easy way to politely phrase any question you may have is to use the phrase, “Mi può,” which means, “Could you (polite)… me.” To complete the sentence, add the infinitive verb for what you need after this Italian phrase — once again, there is no need to conjugate with this method! If we add dire to the phrase, for instance, we get, “Mi può dire…” for “Could you (polite) tell me…”
- Examples below use “Dov’è…?” for “Where is…?” and allow one to ask for directions to place of interest. If the answer to any of these questions involves a particular street, you will hear the phrase in… via, for the English on… street.
La banca è in via Verde. The bank is on Green Street.
- Of course, with this method, one has to be ready to hear the directions in Italian!
|mi può dire
|could (you pol.) tell me
|…la fermata dell’autobus?
|…the bus stop?
|…la stazione dei treni?
|…the train station?
|…the post office?
5. Use [Mi può + dire…] to ask about Italian schedules
- Use “Mi puo…” to ask about a schedule for public transportation or when a place of interest opens or closes.
- Quando means when and can be added after the phrase, “Mi può dire…” to find out when transportation will arrive (arriva) or depart (parte).
- Use quando to ask when a museum, shop, restaurant or other place of interest will open (apre) or will close (chiude). Notice from the literal translation, in the table below, which follows the abbreviation “lit.” that the word order to ask these questions is slightly different in Italian and English.
|Mi può dire
|Could you (pol.) tell me
|…arriva il treno?
|…the train arrives?
(lit. arrives the train)
|…the bus arrives?
(lit. arrives the bus)
|…parte il treno?
|…the train leaves?
(lit. leaves the train)
|…the bus leaves?
(lit. leaves the bus)
|…apre il museo?
|…the museum opens?
(lit. opens the museum)
|…chiude il museo?
|…the museum closes?
(lit. closes the museum)
6. Use [Mi può + portare] or [Ci può + portare] at the restaurant
- While dining at a restaurant, it is often necessary to ask the waiter to bring something to your table. Perhaps you need additional silverware or another napkin. Or maybe another drink or cup of espresso. Just ask the waiter to bring these things to you with the phrase [mi può + portare]. Of course, it will be necessary to remember the Italian for which part of the table setting or which drink you need, as in the examples below!
- Cultural note: Italian restaurants do not usually serve water or soft drinks with ice (ghiaccio). The reason is often simple — there usually is no ice maker on the premises. Also, many Italians still believe that a very cold drink is not good for one’s health. In short, if you’d like to ask for ice while traveling in Italy, it is possible to do so by asking, “Mi può portare del ghiaccio,” for “Can you bring me some ice?” but don’t be disappointed if there is none available!
- An additional bottle of water or wine, or perhaps an additional basket of bread might be needed for all the guests dining at a table. In this case, one can make a request for the entire table simply by changing the “mi” for “me” in the original phrase to “ci” for “us.”
|Mi può portare…
|Could you bring me…
|Ci può portare…
|Could you bring us…
|…some still water (natural water)?
|…some sparkling water?
|…del pane/più pane?
|…some bread/more bread?
|…del sale e pepe?
|…some salt and pepper?
|…un cucchiaio, un coltello, una forchetta?
|…a spoon, a knife, a fork?
- Cultural note: remember that there is a charge in Italy for any bread served, whether it is brought to you by request or not! This charge is listed on the bill as the “pane e coperto” or “bread and cover charge,” and, as the name suggests, also serves to reserve the table for as long as the guests would like to stay. An additional charge will be added for any additional bread requested, so don’t be surprised to see this charge on the bill as well. Luckily, the pane e coperto at the time of this writing is usually only 1-3 euros, although more may be charged in an upscale restaurant. It is best to check the notice that should be listed in the menu if you are on a budget.
- A simple question to use if you’d like a receipt at a restaurant replaces portare with dare (to give) in the formula; [mi può + dare] means, “Can you give me…?” Remember to ask for the receipt when dining in Italy, as there is no limit for the amount of time one can linger and enjoy food and friends, and the waiter will not want to interrupt your time together! Use, “Mi può dare la ricevuta, per favore?” for “Could you give me a receipt, please?
7. Use [Posso + infinitive verb] or [Possiamo + infinitive verb] at the restaurant
- In the table below are some expressions commonly used when dining in a restaurant. The io (I) and noi (we) forms of the verb potere are important to know in this situation, since requests are usually made for oneself or for the entire table.
- We expand the polite use of potere with, “Posso?” for “May I…?” and “Possiamo?” for “May we…?”
- Use the reflexive pronoun mi (myself) with [posso + sedersi]when asking to be seated in Italian. Use the reflexive pronoun ci (ourselves) with [possiamo + sedersi] when requesting a group be seated. You will notice from the phrases below that the reflexive pronouns mi and ci are attached to the infinitive action verb sedersi after removing the -si ending. This is the rule for all [helping verb + reflexive verb] combinations.
- Sitting is not reflexive in English, so you will not find a reflexive pronoun in the translations in the table below. Instead, English simply uses the verb “sit” alone or sometimes adds the adverb “down” to personalize the meaning of the verb sit.
- Cultural note: It is not usually necessary to ask for the menu in an Italian restaurant; the waiter will generally bring menus to the table once everyone is seated. But, if for some reason you need to see the menu again, it is customary to make this request in Italian with the verb avere (to have) rather than the American verb “to see.”
- Language note: In Italian, the word for table has both masculine and feminine endings. The masculine, “il tavolo” refers to any type of table — a table one will be eating on or working on, for instance. When the table is full of food, it becomes feminine, as in “la tavola.” Therefore, if one is simply asking for a table at a certain place in a restaurant (before the food has arrived), the masculine ending applies.
|…sedermi vicino alla finestra?
… sedermi a un tavolo fuori?
|…sit by the window?
…sit at an outside table?
|…sedermi a un’altro tavolo?
|…sit at another table?
|…avere il menù?
|…see (have) the menu?
|…sederci vicino alla finestra?
…sederci a un tavolo fuori?
|…sit by the window?
…sederci a una tavola fuori?
|…sederci a un’altro tavolo?
|…sit at another table?
|…avere il menù?
|…see (have) the menu?
- Finally, if you have food allergies or special requests, use posso to describe what you can… or cannot do!
|Non posso mangiare niente…
|I cannot eat anything…
|…fatto con noci/arachidi.
|…made with nuts/peanuts.
Simply follow the method detailed in this blog
to use potere to ask for what you need politely
and “fare una bella figura” while in Italy!
I guarantee you will use può every day!
For “All the Italian you need to enjoy your trip to Italy,” click on the links below to purchase my Conversational Italian for Travelers books – Kathryn Occhipinti