In order to express the potential in Japanese we need to alter the verb ending. The way we do so differs for each group of verbs (just as it did when we conjugated the verbs into the negative, simple past, and negative past). I will introduce new verb conjugations using the standard form of the verb. This applies not just to the potential but also when we come to look at the causative, the passive, etc. Changing from the present to the negative, simple past, and negative past is incredible easy because all conjugations end with る and we can treat it like a group 2 verb.

The Standard Affirmative

As we saw when we did some basic conjugations on verbs, the layout of the hiragana table is helpful.

Group 1

From the standard dictionary form we start with our “u” ending verb and this time skip one column to the right to change to an “e” ending character and then add る. Taking the verb to write (かく) as an example:

かく ⇒ かけ+る ⇒ かける

Verb Dictionary Potential
to read める
to wait てる
to reply かえ かえせる
to go ける
to go home かえ かえれる

The group 1 verb ある is an exception which we will look at below.

Group 2

We replace る with られる.

Verb Dictionary Potential
to see られる
to leave られる
to exist いる いられる

Often in conversation the られる will be shortened to れる because this is less of a tongue-twister. So, for example, 見られる would become 見れる. However, this is not correct grammatical practice and you’re advised to remember the correct form for now.

Group 3

These two are awkward again. You just need to remember them. Be careful: “to come” looks like it conjugates the same as a group 2 verb, but the phonetics for the kanji have changed from く to こ.

Verb Dictionary Potential
to do する できる
to come られる

The Negative, Past Negative, and Past

From here we can treat ALL verbs as if they belong to Group 2. In other words, we can change the final る as per the following table to form the negative, past, and past negative.

Potential Negative Past Past Negative
ない なかった
勉強べんきょうできませんでした。
Could not study.
べられなかった。
Could not eat.
られません。
Cannot see.

Now, technically when we use the potential form of the verb, the object particle を should be replaced with the particle が. So for the sentence, “I can put my bag here”:

ここにかばんけます。 ()
ここにかばんがけます。(Correct)

I say technically because modern day parlance makes allowances for either, although grammar conformists may shout otherwise. The reality is that you will hear both を and が used with the potential in both conversation and writing. The same rule bending does not, however, apply to the potential form of the verb “to do”. This needs the が particle. For example, “I can play tennis”:

テニスできます。()
テニスができます。(Correct)

The が particle is again omitted if the verb takes a direct object. For example, “I can study Japanese”:

日本語にほんご勉強べんきょうできます。()
日本語にほんご勉強べんきょうできます。(Correct)

The Exceptions

There’s always one verb that has to be awkward. In this case it’s the verb ある. The potential form of this verb actually requires a less common structure (which you do not need to remember for either JLPT N4 or N5). This combines the stem of the verb with える. It is most often used with the negative as a phrase to express shock at a situation.

ありえない。
Cannot be (unbelievable).

We also see it in the verbs “to hear” and “to see”, which actually have two forms of the potential—each for different situations. This is another stumbling block for learners as we do not differentiate between these two meanings in English.

As we know from above, the potential form of “to hear” and “to see” is:

Verb Dictionary Potential
to see (grp. 2) られる
to hear (grp. 1) ける

In Japanese the potential form above implies that you have the ability to hear or see, not whether it’s possible in the first place. This is best understood through an example. Say you’re sitting in an audience and there’s a tall guy seated in front of you blocking your view. In English we would just say, “I can’t see”, but we would in fact mean, “I do have the ability to see (my power of sight) but I cannot see the stage because this guy’s head is in the way”. Japanese makes this distinction and in this situation you need use another form of the potential.

Verb Dictionary Potential II
to see える
to hear こえる

For example, “I can hear music from outside”:

そとから音楽おんがくけます。()
そとから音楽おんがくこえます。(Correct)

Both 見える and 聞こえる must take が as their particle (you cannot use を).

The Potential with Nominalised Verbs

For just about every verb we actually have at least two ways of forming the potential because we can nominalise the verb and then make it into a verb again by adding ができる. Sounds confusing, eh? Don’t worry, it’s all quite straight-forward!

べる。
To eat.
べること。
The thing that is eating.
べることができます
Can eat [can do the thing that is eating].
わたし漢字かんじむことができます
I can read kanji.
わたしおよぐことができます
I can swim.

This form of expressing the potential doesn’t change the meaning but is typically a little more formal (and therefore used more often in writing rather than conversation). It will likely come up on the JLTP N5 exam.

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