Making potential phrases is not that easy in Japanese. The main reason why it is so difficult is that there are several methods that you can use to make potential phrases, and they are not all exactly the same. Plus, there are minor but important different restraints to each pattern.
Another problem is that the Japanese concept of potential is not the same as in English or other major languages such as Chinese. In Japanese, the potential is highly intertwined with the concept of will/volition and favorable situation. This will have consequences to the grammar as you will discover in this lesson.
漢字 to learn this week: 姿、漢、可、能、災、保、判、油、簡、単、努、相、僕、俺、遅
Curriculum Note: See Potential II for information on harder/rarer potential patterns.
To create the potential form (可能形), which translates to "can..." in English, you traditionally use the auxiliary verbs ～られる or ～れる depending on class. These endings create what is specifically known as the potential form.
Although in English potential verbs are treated as transitives and therefore have direct objects, the direct objects of Japanese potential sentences are treated as the subjects of intransitive verbs. The auxiliaries, then, are intransitive. This, though, is only a difference in how the same thing is being treated. This does not change the fact that there are objects to potential action. Because of this alignment conflict, particle issues arise between が and を, which will be discussed at the end of this lesson.
The potential form is applied to verbs and adjectives as the conjugation chart will show below. Verbs, though, are the most important with it. The auxiliaries attach to the 未然形 of a verb. This is because a potential phrase is not something that has been done. Note that 未然 means "before it happens".
～られる is used with 一段 verbs and 来る. ～れる is used with 五段 verbs. However, ～れる has become more formal/old-fashioned. Now, the sound change あれ to え is now prevalent for 五段 verbs. So, 行かれる → 行ける. This means that 五段 verbs all have unique potential verb forms (可能動詞).
する is irregular. It is instead replaced with できる, which has the meaning of "to be able to". Ignore other means of the verb for this lesson.
|五段||行く||行かれる → 行ける||行けた||行けない||行けなかった|
Part of Speech Note: いられる shows the potential of a state. Adjectives are not common in the potential. To be clear on constructing potential adjectival phrases, ～られる attaches to the 未然形 of いる and いる then attaches to the 連用形 of an adjective. This is the same for both classes of adjectives.
1. ら is often deleted in ～られる for the potential form to separate the potential function from the passive and honorific function of ～られる. This is now widely accepted even in polite speech because of this. Ex. 来られる→ 来れる、食べられる → 食べれる Etc.
2. Another phenomenon, though not so common, is adding られ to the potential of 五段 verbs to make their potential forms look like the other classes. Ex. 出せない → 出せられない. This is generally felt to be an error.
History Note: The sound change that lead to independent potential verbs is uncertain. One idea is that it is a contraction of the 連用形 of 五段 verbs plus the more classical potential ending ～得る.
Ex. 書き得る → 書ける
A more plausible account is that a subset of intransitive verbs that showed spontaneity (phenomena that occur naturally) promoted the generalization to all 五段 verbs.
切れる is the intransitive verb form of 切る. Its use as the potential form of 切る is only recent. It is most simply translated as "to be cut", but it has many other nuances. One nuance in particular aids in visualizing the jump from spontaneity to potential. For instance, in the sentence よく切れた球が戻ってきた, we envision a tennis-like ball making a good return with a good spin. The importance, though, is similar usages in these verbs of spontaneity is what makes this such a compelling theory.
Also, historically, the endings ～られる and ～れる, though different in appearance, have stood for and continue to be used for not only potential but also passivation, spontaneity, and light honorifics. It's believed, though, that the root usage is to show spontaneity. For a potential pattern to evolve from another line of spontaneity phrases shouldn't be a surprise in light of this.
Can you write Kanji?
It can't be helped, but I can't go to the park tomorrow.
Can you read a Japanese book?
Is this mushroom edible?
You could say that too.
It's just luck that I was able to succeed at the company.
I can't wake up early!
The story is too good to be true.
Can I walk there?
いくつまで数えられるのか。(Somewhat rude; a sense of doubt is portrayed)
How far can you count to?
Can you ride a bicycle?
Together with effort and luck, I was able to be victorious.
Birds can fly.
Literally: Birds can fly through the sky.
Mr. Kato can play go.
My dad can't play golf.
You can't take Japanese at my school.
I can speak Japanese.
Literally: I can do Japanese.
Grammar Note: You don't make a verb a noun and use "Noun + ができる (see ことができる later in this lesson). This example shows how できる is used to literally show one's ability/talent. So, similar sayings like ゴルフができない would also be correct.
I have work tomorrow. So, I can't go.
They can't even agree or disagree.
I didn't have money, so I couldn't ride the bus.
Can you play the piano?
Can I stay for one more day?
Can you come next Friday?
Our baby can already waddle around.
No, I can't. I am terribly sorry.
Can I send a fax?
Idiomatic: That's exactly it.
Note: Notice that いえる, aside from literally mean "can say", can also be used as in the previous sentence.
I can win at shogi.
Word Note: 将棋 is Japanese chess.
Liquor? Yes, you can drink it.
Meaning Note: In the above sentence, the potential is used in showing permission. Or, depending on context, it may refer to the liquor in question being safe to drink.
Can I drink this water?
Meaning Note: The above sentence is not asking about whether the speaker has the ability to drink water. Rather, it's about whether it's OK or not to. This is not asking permission. The water could be dirty. People can still drink dirty water, but should they is the question.
Where can I park my car?
Money cannot pay for lost time.
連用形 + はしない is like a strong "won't" in the sense of not being able to do something.
Nobody's key will work.
Verb ＋ に ＋ Negative Potential Verb
This is a rather emphatic pattern that is used to show that even when wants to do something, one can't.
The snow piled up, and we were unable to go out (though we wanted to).
The storm is so strong that I can't even go.
More Verbs in the Potential
| Can go home||帰られる|| Can swim||泳げる|
| Can die||死ねる|| Can buy||買える|
| Can drink||飲める|| Can wait||待てる|
|Can take||取れる||Can sing||歌える|
Verbs that Cannot Have Potentials
Verbs that cannot have potential forms in Japanese are any verbs that have no volition involved in their meaning whatsoever. This includes verbs of natural phenomenon like 降る, 光る, 流れる, 凍る, etc. It also means verbs that deal with human emotion and physiology (いたむ, しびれる (to be paralyzed), うらやむ (to be jealous), any verbs that end in ある (as they have no volition), and any pattern that has no control involved like phrases with つく and いく such as 想像がつく (one can imagine) and 納得がいく (to accept as valid).
Notice that these are all intransitive verbs. However, it’s not to say that all intransitive verbs don't have potential forms. Think of motion verbs like 走る, 行く, 帰る, 戻る, 来る, etc. All of these have potentials because volition is involved in their meanings.
Set Phrase Note: あられる, the potential of ある, does happen to exist in the phrase あられもない, which means "impossible". As this is the case, it doesn't contradict what has been said above because there is no volition in impossibility.
とても in a negative sentence means "can't possibly".
なかなか in a negative sentence means "not easily/by no means". It's used a lot with potential expressions.
Instead of using -（ら）れる, you may use ことができる. This pattern is arguably more common despite being longer. Without qualification, it will sound as if you can't do the phrase at all when used in the negative, so be careful. This does not have the requirement of being only used with verbs of volition. This can be used to show the potential of something to happen.
I can speak Japanese.
Can you use a computer?
I was able to see the American football game.
You won't be able to collect over a million signatures.
I can read Kanji.
Particle Note: が in this pattern, due to its specific nature, would otherwise make it sound like you in particular are the one that "can"; however, this not necessarily the case. Nowadays, ～ことができる has more or less become an affirmative, refined pattern.
聞こえる and 見える predate the potential forms 聞ける and 見られる. Essentially, they show inherent ability whereas 聞ける and 見られる show that you can (if you want), indicating one's intentions can be realized.
聞こえる describes a naturally hearing sensation. It can be defined as "to be able to hear", "to sound", "to be audible", and even "to be famous". 見える may mean "to be able to see". It can also mean "to come into view/to appear". With ように, 見える may show what something looks like. It may also be a very respectful form of the verb 来る.
I could hear their voices even in the middle of the rain.
He looks like he's excited.
Do you think that fish can hear?
I can't hear his lecture.
To look one's age.
You can now see Kurosawa's movies in the theater.
You can hear the weather forecast on your iPhone.
I could see Mt. Kaguyama yesterday, but I can't see it today.
It appears that it's going to rain.
Grammar Note: ～そうに is attached to the 連用形 of 降り出す to mean "appears/looks like". This describes what seems to be about to happen.
I can hear the neighbor's television('s sound).
I see so much better when I wear my new glasses.
He can't see very well with his right eye.
Literally: As for him, his right eye can't see very well.
Historical Note: Long ago ～ゆ was used just like ～られる and ～れる and remains part of many verbs like 燃える and 消える. Their roots still end in "y" and they're intransitive and spontaneous in nature. This explains 聞こえる and 見える.
Another verb to note is 思える. It can show spontaneous thought. It can also show the ability of thought which can be seen as coming from 思ゆ or 思われる.
There are four potential routes that you can take to make the potential with する-verbs.
Verb Note: Verbs like 愛す are treated as 五段 verbs. Also note that something like 理解することができる is typically deemed to be unnecessarily wordy.
Curriculum Note: See Potential II for ～得る. It is literary.
He's a guy that can't sense danger, isn't he?
I can't love you.
To be able to experience.
I can't feel it.
He's a person that can love anybody, isn't he?
Believe it or not, I couldn't understand Japanese in junior high.
～が～できる VS ～を～できる
For transitive verbs the direct object is marked with を, but when the verb is put into the potential, が or を can be used to mark the object. This also extends to verbs like 説明できる. The same phenomenon can be said for ～たい, which is used to show personal want to do something.
I want to speak Japanese.
Can you speak Japanese?
I can't explain that grammar point.
There are verbs like 分かる and できる in Japanese that seem to have direct objects marked by が. When できる is part of the potential form of transitive する-verbs, が and を appear to be interchangeable. However, it really isn't this arbitrary.
It turns out that the meaning of the verb has a lot to do with which particle you chose. Verbs of thought or feeling like 理解する and 期待する (to anticipate) tend to be used with が in the potential even though their basic forms are still transitive. Most others tend to have を, but verbs like 実現する (to realize; fulfill), 達成する (to achieve), 入手する (to acquire) like が too. Even still, these verbs have a common theme of succeeding. Also, する-verbs made from English words basically exclusively use を in the potential.
Here is a chart that shows the percentages of what the subject is marked with depending on whether the object is marked with either が or を.
|Subject||が は に には にも||が は に にも には|
|0% 25% 8% 51% 16%||50% 49% 0% 1% 0%|
The subject does not like to have the same particle as the object. Furthermore, options like には and にも which can indirectly refer to the subject are basically not used at all with ～を…～できる. Basically, we get the following basic structures.
を is also liked a lot when a phrase with できる is with こと or a substantive noun. In short, a lot of verbs like を. Even so, there are some verbs like those with thought, emotion, and achieving that like が, which is the same for ～（ら）れる. With this said, this should give you a good understand of this case dilemma.
North Korea is in the state of being able to fire a missile at any time.
I can't explain it.
To be able to hit a homerun.
Note: 打てる isn't usually paired with を.
Change the verbs into their potential forms.
1. 見る 2. する 3. 来る 4. 泳ぐ
5. Create a sentence using either せる or し得る.
6. What are the auxiliary verbs for the potential and what bases do they follow?
7. Create a sentence using ことができない.
8. Create a sentence using an independent potential verb.
9. Create a sentence using the auxiliary verb -られる.
10. Explain the difference 聞こえる and 聞ける and 見える and 見られる.