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Italian expression of the day: 'Mi serve' vs 'Ho bisogno'

Giampietro Vianello
Giampietro Vianello - [email protected]
Italian expression of the day: 'Mi serve' vs 'Ho bisogno'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

You need to know the subtle differences between these two expressions.


It’s often the case in Italy that you’ll find several words or expressions that mean something very similar, and it’s not always easy to know which one is appropriate. Our new mini-series looks at some of the most common pairs, and sorts out which should be used and when.

Why do I need to know the difference between mi serve and ho bisogno?

Whether you’re just starting out in your journey to Italian proficiency or are a more experienced speaker, expressing a need is something that you can expect to do regularly when practising your language skills and in conversation with Italians.

The Italian language has two main ways to do so: mi serve (qualcosa) and ho bisogno di (qualcosa)

(In some cases, the verb dovere ('to have to') can also be used to express a need, as opposed to a strict obligation or requirement, but we’ll keep this discussion for another time.)

Though mi serve and ho bisogno can often be used interchangeably, there are some subtle differences between the two phrases that are not always clear to native speakers either.

What are the main differences?

Let’s start with mi serve.

From a grammatical standpoint, the verb servire ('to serve') follows the same pattern as other so-called impersonal verbs, including piacere (and the corresponding mi piace, or ‘I like’, construction). 

This means that you’ll use serve (third person singular) when the object needed is just one, and servono (third person plural) when multiple things are needed at once.

In all cases, the verb is preceded by the relevant indirect object pronoun (mi, ti, gli, le, ci, vi or gli).


Mi serve can only be used with nouns and generally applies to concrete ‘things’ or ‘objects’ that you may need to complete any type of action. For instance:

Mi serve un cacciavite per sistemare il comodino.

I need a screwdriver to fix the nightstand.

Mi servono due euro per comprare il giornale.

I need two euros to buy the newspaper.

Mi serve una mano.

I need a hand.


And mi serve is almost never used when referring to people. That’s where the construction avere (‘to have’, conjugated according to the person expressing the need) + bisogno (‘necessity’) + di (‘of’) comes in.

Ho bisogno di un medico.

I need a doctor.

Ho bisogno di Luigi. Puoi passarmelo al telefono?

I need Luigi. Can you put him on the phone?

Ho bisogno di lei nella mia vita.

I need her in my life.


As a further difference, while mi serve tends to apply exclusively to concrete objects, ho bisogno can apply to concrete things as well as feelings, emotions, moods and so on.

Ho bisogno di amore.

I need love.

Ho bisogno di emozioni forti per sentirmi vivo.

I need strong emotions to feel alive.

Finally, besides being applicable to people, ho bisogno can be used with both nouns and verbs. Mi serve can only be used with nouns.

Ho bisogno di prendere un pò d’aria.

I need to get some air.

Ho bisogno di prendermi un pò di tempo per me stesso.

I need to take some time for myself.

As a rule of thumb, if unsure as to which expression you should use in a particular situation, ho bisogno is usually the safest bet as it has a much wider scope than mi serve.

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