Table of Contents
- What Is the Potential Form?
- Potential Form for Skill and Ability
- Potential Form for Possibilities
- Potential Form for "-bility" Attributes
- When the Potential Form Differs from "Can"
What Is the Potential Form?
When a verb is in the potential form, it shows the ability or possibility to do the action described by the verb, as in 食べられる (can eat), 飲める (can drink), and 泳げる (can swim). As you can see, the potential form is similar to the word "can," but it is built into the Japanese verb rather than a separate word like in English. Although the English "can" and the potential form are commonly considered to be equivalents, there are cases where they are not quite interchangeable. We'll walk you through similarities and differences in various contexts.
Quick side note: if you're looking for more information about how to conjugate verbs into the potential form, read our page all about it. The structure of this form is currently undergoing changes in Japanese, so be sure to check it out. On this page, we'll focus on the meanings and uses when the verbs are in this potential form.
To explain the ability of something, we also use 〜ることができる as something similar to 〜れる.
Potential Form for Skill and Ability
This use is very straightforward. Just like the English "can," the potential form can be used for skill and ability.
Let's look at an example:
- I can read Japanese.
The sentence uses the potential form of the verb 読む (to read), which is 読める, to show that you've acquired a skill, and now you know how to read Japanese. Let's compare this with something similar, but slightly different—ability:
- I can read small letters from afar.
This one means you have the ability and enough vision to read whatever the small letters say, and you can totally use it like "can" in English.
Potential Form for Possibilities
You can also use this form for expressing what's situationally possible or allowable.
- You can read books by Haruki Murakami at that coffee shop.
This indicates that the coffee shop has books by Murakami, and you can read them there.
Another example is:
- In Japan, you can drink alcohol in parks.
In case you didn't know, and good news for those who love drinking—this is all true! Japan allows people to drink in public, and there is no problem with drinking in parks. So in this case, it is situationally possible to drink at parks because public drinking is socially and legally allowed in Japan.
Potential Form for "-bility" Attributes
The potential form can be used to express "-bility" attributes of things, such as edibility, fixability, usability, etc.
For example, imagine your classmate says to you:
- This eraser is edible.
Maybe your classmate is just being crazy, or maybe it is a special type of eraser you can eat! In any case, you can say that it's edible using the potential form of 食べる (to eat)—食べられる.
Let's look at another example. Imagine your mom says to you:
- This bowl is usable as a hat.
Your classmate eats erasers, and your mom wears a bowl on her head? Sounds like you are surrounded by interesting people! Anyway, it's more important to note that in this type of context, the particle は is often used instead of が or を whatever has the "-bility" attribute.
When the Potential Form Differs from "Can"
Up until now, we've seen cases where the potential form works just like "can" in English. However, the English "can" covers "possibility" in a broader sense than in the potential form in Japanese, so let's look at some cases you would want to be careful using it.
When Something Can Happen without Volition
To express that something might happen without anyone specifically causing it by their own volition, we have the option of using "can" in English. For example, we can say, "Things can go wrong" and "Anyone can make mistakes." However, the potential form cannot be used in these kinds of contexts in Japanese.
Let's say, you want to argue that robots can sometimes make mistakes just like humans. In English, we might say, "Robots can make mistakes as well." In Japanese, using the potential form will create a different meaning for this scenario.
This example suggests robots have the ability to make mistakes if they try to do so. So instead, to differentiate from the ability to make mistakes and simply to show the possibility, we say:
- There are times robots make mistakes.
Let's make this a little clearer with another example. Your dear friend Kanae is a sweetheart, but you've noticed that she can be annoying at times, even if she isn't trying to be. Using the potential form here will create a different nuance though. Let's check it out:
Just like with the robots, this example indicates that Kanae has the ability to be annoying when she decides to be. To simply express the possibility that she can be annoying at times (even if she's not trying to be), we say:
- There are times that Kanae is annoying.
Since this information is based on your experience seeing Kanae being annoying at times, it is more natural to express it in this way.
Asking for Permission
One use of "can" in English is to ask for permission, as in, "Can I go to the bathroom?" Of course, your snobby English grammar teacher might have sneered when you asked this, and responded, "I don't know, can you?" Even though traditionally, "May I go to the bathroom?" would be the "correct" way to ask this question, people use "can" all the time in this context.
However, in Japanese, the potential form is limited to talking about abilities, so if you said,「トイレに行ける？」it would literally mean, "Am I able to go to the bathroom?" Clearly not what you mean to say, right?
Let's break this down even more with another example. You and your friend are drinking at a bar. As usual, indecisive-you is regretting your order. You should've just ordered the same drink as your friend since hers looks so much better! To ask if you can have a sip of your friend's drink, you might say:
- ❌ 私はこれ一口飲める？
- Can I take a sip of this?
This sentence doesn't quite make sense. If it's directed at you, and you're questioning your ability to take a sip, then… maybe? It makes slightly more sense, but it's still a weird sentence. Let's try again, but without the subject 私は (I) because as you may know, the subject often gets omitted in Japanese:
Now that the subject is up for interpretation, it could sound like you are asking the friend if she is able to take a sip of the drink she ordered. And that would be a little weird because she's drinking it already—clearly she is able to take a sip, right?
So how do you ask permission to take a sip of the dang drink!? Here's a great way to do it:
- ⭕️ これ一口飲んでもいい？
- Is it okay if I take a sip of this?
Instead of using the potential form, you can ask your question using 〜てもいい. This is similar to saying, "Is it okay if…?" in English. Yay! Now take that sip—you must be thirsty by now!
The potential form can be used to make requests in Japanese, but just be aware that the nuance might not be exactly the same as "Can you…?" questions for making requests in English. For example, if you want your friend to come over to help with your homework at 5:00, you might say:
- Can you come over at 5 o'clock?
This works fine as a way to make a request, though the nuance is purely asking if your friend has availability at 5:00 to come over to your place. If you want to ask your friend to come over as a favor, you would say:
- Will you come over at 5:00 (for me)?
With くれる attached to the verb 来る (to come), you add the nuance that the action will be done as a favor. Thus, using くれる makes the question seem more like a request, not just to check someone's availability.
Intransitive Verbs With Potential Nuance
In Japanese, there are some intransitive verbs that already include potential nuances, so often we don't use them in the potential form.
For example, you and your friends are looking for a bar to go to. You see a sign for a bar and want to say, "Can you see that sign over there?" You might think of conjugating the verb 見る (to see) into the potential form and saying:
見られる is the potential form of the transitive verb 見る. However, in Japanese, there is an intransitive verb 見える, which means "to be in sight," and it is used for when something comes into your line of sight naturally without you trying to see it. In this case, instead of using the potential form of 見る, we use the non-potential, regular form of the intransitive verb 見える and say:
- ⭕️ あの看板見える？
- Is the sign over there in your sight?
The literal translation feels a bit awkward in English, but it's used like, "Can you see the sign over there?"
We do have situations where we can use 見られる as the potential form of 見る, but this would mean "can see" as in "having a chance to take a look" rather than "being able to see." So if you want to ask your coworker if they can take a look at a document, you can use the potential form of 見る and say:
- ⭕️ この書類明日までに見られる？
- Will you be able to take a look at this document by tomorrow?
There are some other intransitive verbs that you'll want to be careful with as well—聞ける and 燃える, for example.