LearnJapanese Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese





Potential Form

Posted by Tae Kim

Expressing the ability to do something

In Japanese, the ability to do a certain action is expressed by conjugating the verb rather than adding a word such as the words "can" or "able to" in the case of English. All verbs conjugated into the potential form become a ru-verb.

The Potential Form

Vocabulary

  1. 見る 【み・る】 (ru-verb) - to see
  2. 遊ぶ 【あそ・ぶ】 (u-verb) - to play
  3. する (exception) - to do
  4. 来る 【く・る】 (exception) - to come
  5. 出来る 【で・き・る】 (ru-verb) - to be able to do
  6. 食べる 【た・べる】 (ru-verb) - to eat
  7. 着る 【き・る】 (ru-verb) - to wear
  8. 信じる 【しん・じる】 (ru-verb) - to believe
  9. 寝る 【ね・る】 (ru-verb) - to sleep
  10. 起きる 【お・きる】 (ru-verb) - to wake; to occur
  11. 出る 【で・る】 (ru-verb) - to come out
  12. 掛ける 【か・ける】 (ru-verb) - to hang
  13. 調べる 【しら・べる】 (ru-verb) - to investigate
  14. 話す 【はな・す】 (u-verb) - to speak
  15. 書く 【か・く】 (u-verb) - to write
  16. 待つ 【ま・つ】 (u-verb) - to wait
  17. 飲む 【の・む】 (u-verb) - to drink
  18. 取る 【と・る】 (u-verb) - to take
  19. 死ぬ 【し・ぬ】 (u-verb) - to die
  20. 買う 【か・う】 (u-verb) - to buy
  21. 漢字 【かん・じ】 - Kanji
  22. 残念 【ざん・ねん】 (na-adj) - unfortunate
  23. 今週末 【こん・しゅう・まつ】 - this weekend
  24. 行く 【い・く】 (u-verb) - to go
  25. もう - already

Once again, the conjugation rules can be split into three major groups: ru-verbs, u-verbs, and exception verbs. However, the potential form of the verb 「する」 (meaning "to do") is a special exception because it becomes a completely different verb: 「できる」 (出来る

Rules for creating potential form
  • For ru-verbs: Replace the 「る」 with 「られる」.
    Example: られる
  • For u-verbs: Change the last character from a / u / vowel sound to the equivalent / e / vowel sound and add 「る」.
    Example: 遊べ
  • Exceptions:
    1. する」 becomes 「できる
    2. くる」 becomes 「こられる

※Remember that all potential verbs become ru-verbs.

Sample ru-verbs
Plain Potential
食べ 食べられる
られる
信じ 信じられる
られる
起き 起きられる
られる
掛け 掛けられる
調べ 調べられる
    
Sample u-verbs
Plain Potential
せる
ける
べる
てる
める
れる
ねる
える
    
Exception Verbs
Plain Potential
する できる
くる こられる

It is also possible to just add 「れる」 instead of the full 「られる」 for ru-verbs. For example, 「食べる」 becomes 「食べれる」 instead of 「食べられる」. I suggest learning the official 「られる」 conjugation first because laziness can be a hard habit to break and the shorter version, though common, is considered to be slang.

Examples

  1. 漢字書けます
    Can you write kanji?
  2. 残念だが、今週末行けない
    It's unfortunate, but can't go this weekend.
  3. もう信じられない
    I can't believe it already.

Potential forms do not have direct objects

Vocabulary

  1. 富士山 【ふ・じ・さん】 - Mt. Fuji
  2. 登る 【のぼ・る】 (u-verb) - to climb
  3. 重い 【おも・い】 (i-adj) - heavy
  4. 荷物 【に・もつ】 - baggage
  5. 持つ 【も・つ】 (u-verb) - to hold

The potential form indicates that something is possible but no actual action is actually taken. While the potential form is still a verb, because it is describing the state of feasibility, in general, you don't want to use the direct object 「を」 as you would with the non-potential form of the verb. For example the following sentences sound unnatural.

  1. 富士山登れた
  2. 重い荷物持てます

Here are the versions using either 「が」 or 「は」 instead:

  1. 富士山登れた
    Was able to climb Fuji-san.
  2. 重い荷物持てます
    Am able to hold heavy baggage.

Are 「見える」 and 「聞こえる」 exceptions?

Vocabulary

  1. 見える 【み・える】 (ru-verb) - to be visible
  2. 聞こえる 【き・こえる】 (ru-verb) - to be audible
  3. 今日 【きょう】 - today
  4. 晴れる 【は・れる】 (ru-verb) - to be sunny
  5. 富士山 【ふ・じ・さん】 - Mt. Fuji
  6. 友達 【とも・だち】 - friend
  7. おかげ - thanks to
  8. 映画 【えい・が】 - movie
  9. ただ - free of charge; only
  10. 見る 【み・る】 (ru-verb) - to see
  11. こと - event, matter
  12. 出来る 【で・き・る】 (ru-verb) - to be able to do
  13. 久しぶり 【ひさ・しぶり】 - after a long time
  14. 彼 【かれ】 - he; boyfriend
  15. 声 【こえ】 - voice
  16. 聞く 【き・く】 (u-verb) - to ask; to listen
  17. 周り 【まわ・り】 - surroundings
  18. うるさい (i-adj) - noisy
  19. 言う 【い・う】 (u-verb) - to say
  20. あまり/あんまり - not very (when used with negative)

There are two verbs 「見える」 and 「聞こえる」 that mean that something is visible and audible, respectively. When you want to say that you can see or hear something, you'll want to use these verbs. If however, you wanted to say that you were given the opportunity to see or hear something, you would use the regular potential form. However, in this case, it is more common to use the type of expression as seen in example 3.

Examples

  1. 今日晴れて富士山見える
    (It) cleared up today and Fuji-san is visible.
  2. 友達おかげで、映画ただ見られた
    Thanks to (my) friend, (I) was able to watch the movie for free.
  3. 友達おかげで、映画ただ見ることできた
    Thanks to (my) friend, (I) was able to watch the movie for free.

You can see that example 3 uses the generic noun for an event to say literally, "The event of seeing movie was able to be done." which essentially means the same thing as 「見られる」. You can also just use generic noun substitution to substitute for 「こと」.

  1. 友達おかげで、映画ただ見るできた

Here's some more examples using 「聞く」, can you tell the difference? Notice that 「聞こえる」 always means "audible" and never "able to ask".

  1. 久しぶり聞けた
    I was able to hear his voice for the first time in a long time.
  2. 周りうるさくて言っていることあんまり聞こえなかった
    The surroundings were noisy and I couldn't hear what he was saying very well.

ある」, yet another exception

Vocabulary

  1. そんな - that sort of
  2. こと - event, matter
  3. 有り得る 【あ・り・え・る/あ・り・う・る】 (ru-verb) - to possibly exist
  4. 彼 【かれ】 - he; boyfriend
  5. 寝坊【ね・ぼう】 - oversleep
  6. する (exception) - to do
  7. それ - that
  8. 話 【はなし】 - story

You can say that something has a possibility of existing by combining 「ある」 and the verb 「得る」 to produce 「あり得る」. This essentially means 「あることできる」 except that nobody actually says that, they just use 「あり得る」. This verb is very curious in that it can be read as either 「ありうる」 or 「ありえる」, however; all the other conjugations such as 「ありえない」、「ありえた」、and 「ありえなかった」 only have one possible reading using 「え」.

Examples

  1. そんなことありうる
    That kind of situation/event is possible (lit: can exist).
  2. そんなことありえる
    That kind of situation/event is possible (lit: can exist).
  3. そんなことありえない
    That kind of situation/event is not possible (lit: cannot exist).
  4. 寝坊したことありうるね。
    It's also possible that he overslept. (lit: The event that he overslept also possibly exists.)
  5. それは、ありえないだよ。
    That's an impossible story/scenario. (lit: That story/scenario cannot exist.)