Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1

Chapter 15

Potential form

Last chapter we addressed the subtle differences between the は and が particles and learned a few new particles. In this chapter we return our attention to verb conjugations, checking studies about what is called the Potential form – what can you do, and what you cannot do?

Abilities and Capabilities

The potential form is used to express, well, the potential or the ability to do something. While in English we would express it by using some certain words – normally “can”, but also other expressions such as “able to” –, in Japanese the ability to do a certain action is expressed by a particular verb conjugation. Check the two dialogues below:

かよこ:ビールをみますか?
みどり:いいえ、みません。

Kayoko: Do you drink beer?
Midori: No, I do not drink.

かよこ:ビールをみますか?
みどり:いいえ、めません。

Kayoko: Do you drink beer?
Midori: No, I cannot drink.

The difference between the two sentences can be subtle, but the main difference is that the first sentence implies or suggests something more volitional: whichever the reason may be, Midori chooses not to drink (perhaps she does not like the taste, or simply that she just does not want to drink at that particular moment).

On the second sentence, it is implied less of a choice and more of an impossibility: she cannot drink. Again, the reason does not matter: maybe she is allergic to alcohol or is taking some medicine, or that her religion does not allow alcohol consumption; it could equally be that she cannot drink on that particular day because she is driving. It does not necessarily imply an absolute impossibility: she could simply have made a bet or a promise to not drink on that day.

The important thing to bear in mind is that the Potential form is used to imply that something or someone either has or lacks the ability, potential or permission to do something.

田中先生:中上健次の岬を読みましたか?
ヒロキ:いいえ、読みませんでした。

Tanaka sensei: Did you read Nakagami Kenji’s The Cape?
Hiroki: No, I did not read it.

田中先生:中上健次の「岬」を読みましたか?
ヒロキ:いいえ、読めませんでした。

Tanaka sensei: Did you read Nakagami Kenji’s “The Cape”?
Hiroki: No, I could not read it.

While the first sentence simply states that Hiroki did not read the book, the second sentence that, whichever the reason, he was unable to do so. Maybe he could not find a copy to read, or that the book was too hard for him to read. It could even be that he found the book unbearable to read (although I sure hope that is not the case – it is a great book!).

Conjugation

To conjugate the potential form, as always, we have to keep the three verb groups in mind. Let’s once again start with Group 2 verbs, once again the easiest ones. To conjugate them, simply remove the ます ending and add られます (if you are using the Polite form of the verb) or the るending and add られる(if you are using the Plain form of the verb).

Let’s check the table below:

Group 2 Verbs
Polite Present affirmative Polite Present potential Plain Present affirmative Plain Present potential
食べます 食べられます 食べ 食べられる
おきます おきられます おき おきられる

 

かよこ:すしを;食べますか?
ひろき:いいえ、食べません。

Kayoko: Do you eat sushi/Are you having sushi?
Hiroki: No, I do not eat it/I am not having it.

かよこ:すしを食べますか?
ひろき:いいえ、食べられません。

Kayoko: Do you eat sushi/Are you having sushi?
Hiroki: No, I cannot eat it.

One thing I would like to mention is that since Group 2 verbs’ Potential forms tend to be quite long (“食べられます” is quite a mouthful!), many Japanese today often drop the ら (so 食べられます would become 食べれます) – incidentally, as we are about to see, making Group 2 verbs sounding like Group 1 verbs. Although common, it is still considered to be grammatically incorrect, so if you are studying to an examination or have to speak and/or write in formal situations, better to just avoid it.

Group 1 verbs are a bit trickier, but I do not believe them to be particularly hard this time. In fact, once you get the idea, they might be easier than Group 2 verbs (and are certainly shorter). This time, let’s start with the table first:

Group 1 Verbs
Polite Present affirmative Polite Present potential Plain Present affirmative Plain Present potential
飲みます 飲めます 飲む 飲める
書きます 書けます 書く 書ける
行きます 行けます 行く 行ける
買います 買えます 買う 買える
話します 話せます 話せます 話せる

 

For the Polite form, you simply get the Hiragana part of the verb that has an “i” sound (the い, き, ぎ, し, etc. part that comes right before the ます) and change it to the correspondent “e” sound (え, け, げ, せ, etc.). In fact, this is the rare exception where thinking in the Latin alphabet might make it even easier: “nomimasu” becomes “nomemasu”, “ikimasu” becomes “ikemasu”, and so on. For the Plain form, similarly, get the “u” ending part of the verb (う,く,ぐ,す…), change it to the equivalent “e” sound again, and then add “る”. Or, if you prefer, start with the Polite form, change it to the Polite Potential form, and then swap the ます for る. Both will work:

飲む → 飲め + る OR 飲みます → 飲めます → 飲める

ドウドウ:;明日、パーティーに行く?
ひろき:いいえ、行かない。

Doudou: Are you going to the party tomorrow?
Hiroki: No, I am not.

ドウドウ:明日、パーティーに行く?
ひろき:いいえ、行けない。

Doudou: Are you going to the party tomorrow?
Hiroki: No, I cannot go.

Finally, Group 3 verbs are the exception that you should just memorise:

Group 3 Verbs
Polite Present affirmative Polite Present potential Plain Present affirmative Plain Present potential
ます られます られる
します できます する できる

Yes, “きます” becomes “こられます” and “くる” becomes “こられる”. You do not get called an “irrational” verb for nothing! However, other than that, please note that it follows the Group 2 verb conjugation quite nicely, so it might not be as hard to memorise as it could be.

ひろき:けっきょく、パーティーに来た。
Hiroki: In the end, I came to the party.

ひろき:けっきょく、パーティーに来られた。
Hiroki: In the end, I could come to the party.

As for できます and its Plain form counterpart できる, even though I would like you to remember that it is the Potential form of します (to do), you might as well think of it as a different, separate verb meaning “to be able to do”. Simply pay attention to also substitute the particle を for が.

ひろき:私はサッカーをします。
Hiroki: I play football.

ひろき:私はサッカーができます。
Hiroki: I can play football.

We will learn more about the verb できます and its uses in the next section.

Finally, if you are curious to know how to conjugate verbs in the Potential form in the Present negative, Past affirmative and Past negative tenses, rest assured it is quite easy, either in the Polite or Plain forms. This is because all verbs in the Potential form conjugate as if they were Group 2 verbs. In other words, in the Polite form, to obtain the Present negative, Past affirmative and Past negative tenses, just swap ます for ません, ました, and ませんでした, respectively. Similarly, for the Plain form, just swap るfor ない, た, or なかった.

Polite Potential form
Polite Present affirmative Polite Present potential Plain Present affirmative Plain Present potential
食べられます 食べられません 食べられました 食べられませんでした
飲めます 飲めません 飲めました 飲めませんでした
書けます 書けません 書けました 書けませんでした
行けます 行けません 行けました 行けませんでした
来られます 来られません 来られました 来られませんでした
できます できません できました できませんでした
Polite Potential form
Polite Present affirmative Polite Present potential Plain Present affirmative Plain Present potential
食べられる 食べられない 食べられた 食べられなかった
飲める 飲めない 飲めた 飲めなかった
書ける 書けない 書けた 書けなかった
行ける 行けない 行けた 行けなかった
来られる 来られない 来られた 来られなかった
できる できない できた できなかった

Using the Potential Form with できる

There is another way to conjugate verbs in the potential form: simply add the expression “ことができる” after the present plain form of a verb.

ドウドウ:明日、学校に行けます。
ドウドウ:明日、学校に行くことができます。
Doudou: Doudou: I can go to school tomorrow.

Please bear in mind that the main verb should be in present plain form, leaving the auxiliary verb できる to indicate the politeness, tense (past or present) and ability (affirmative or negative):

お;酒は飲むが、ウイスキーは飲めない。
お酒は飲むが、ウイスキーは飲むことができない。
I drink alcohol, but I cannot drink whiskey.

けっきょく、パーティーに来られた。
けっきょく、パーティーに来ることができた。
In the end, I could come to the party.

中上健次の「岬」を読めませんでした。
中上健次の「岬」を読むことができませんでした。
I could not read Nakagami Kenji’s “The Cape”.

By the way, the reason you can do it is that in Japanese you can nominalise any verb (that is, transform a verb into a noun – think about sentences such as “I like to eat” or “I like eating” in English) by adding the word “こと” (meaning “thing”) to the plain form. So, if you want to say “I like to eat” in Japanese, you would write “食べることが好き”.

Special verbs: 見える, 聞こえる and 分かる

As we have seen, the verbs 見る and 聞く correspond to “to see” and “to listen” in Japanese. Given the conjugation rules we learned in this chapter, one would expect their potential forms to be 見られる (since 見る is a Group 2 verb) and 聞ける (since 聞く is a group 1 verb). However, it is much more common to see the verbs 見える and 聞こえる being used instead. What gives?

The truth is that見える and 聞こえる are not, actually, the Potential forms of the verbs 見る and 聞く – rather, they are two distinct verbs that mean “to be visible” and “to be audible” – but in practical terms, you can think of them as if they were. If you want to express that something can be seen or heard (as in “I can see mountains in the horizon” or “I can hear what is being said in the other room”), then normally 見える and 聞こえる are used.

私の;家から山がいっぱい見えます。
Many mountains are visible from my house.

学校から子どもの;声が聞こえる。
Children voices can be heard from the school.

見られる and 聞ける, on the other hand, tend to imply a more active role on your or someone’s part in order for something to be seen or heard. Complicated? Let’s check the examples below:

新しいプレイヤーを;買ったので音楽が聞ける。
I bought a new player, so I can listen to music.

友達から切符をもらいましたので映画が見られました。
My friend gave me a ticket, so I could watch the movie.

As you can see, there are definitely some differences between the two pair of verbs (for starters, 見えるand 聞こえる are intransitive verbs, while 見る and 聞く are transitive). However, I would expect basic and intermediate speakers of Japanese to ignore such grammatical minutiae and using mostly 見える and 聞こえる for now.

One final verb that deserves special attention regarding the Potential form is 分かる. While often translated as “to understand”, in fact 分かる’s meaning is closer to “to be understandable”. The subject of this verb is the thing being understood. In a certain way, it is already a potential form verb, since it represents the passive ability or potential to understand something. Therefore, to say “分かれる” or “分かることができる” is ungrammatical.

私(に)は日本語が分かります。
私は日本語が分かれます。
私は日本語が分かることができる。
I understand Japanese (literally “Japanese is understandable by me”).

Kanji

This time, we are focusing on six Kanji that, although common, have for one reason or another so far fallen off the cracks in our Kanji studies. Without further ado:

This Kanji means “part”, “division”; it also means “minute” – the division of the hour. Through the old Japanese verb く, which meant “to separate, to be distinguishable”, it eventually got to mean “to tell one thing from another”, and, currently, “to understand”.

The み (Japanese reading) of this verb is わ, as seen in the verbs かる (normally translated as “to understand” but closer to “to be understandable”),ける (to divide, to share – please note that this verb does have a potential form) and 見分みわける (to distinguish, to tell apart).

The み (Chinese reading) of this verb is ふん, ぶん or, less commonly, ぶ, appearing in words such as 部分ぶぶん (portion, part), 自分じぶん (oneself, sometimes also meaning “myself”), 身分みぶん (social status), 十分じゅうぶん (enough, plenty) , 半分はんぶん (half), 分析ぶんせき (analysis), and 分野ぶにゃ (“field” as in “field of study”).

Finally, meaning minute, you will often see words such as 1分, 3分, 10分, etc., and so on. However, given the particularities of the Japanese counting system, the pronunciation of the 分 character changes a lot – one minute, for example, is いっぷん, while 3 minutes is さんぶん, and therefore it is best left for an specific article.

Sample sentence: ケーキを半分はんぶんけてください. (Please cut the cake in half.)

This Kanji, which we have seen it in some of the words we have learned previously, means “year”. The 訓読み is とし, appearing in words such as 今年ことし (this year), お年寄としより (senior citizen) and お年玉としだま (“otoshidama”, a New Year’s gift, normally money, given to children). Note, by the way, the “polite” お present in the previous two words.

The much more common 音読み is ねん, appearing in words such as 年間ねんかん (period of years), 去年きょねん (last year), 来年らいねん (next year), 年齢ねんれい (age) and 年金ねんきん (pension).

Sample sentence: 来年らいねん、日本に行きます. (I will go to Japan next year.)

This Kanji means “meet”, “associate”. The 訓読み is あ, appearing on the common verbs う (to meet) and 出会であう (to meet by chance, to come across). The 音読み, かい, is used in many very, very common words, such as the pair 社会しゃかい (society) and 会社かいしゃ (company), 社会人しゃかいじん (adult), 協会きょうかい (association, organization), 教会きょうかい (church), 国会こっかい (National Diet), 大会たいかい (tournament), 会館かいかん (meeting hall) and, somewhat different that the previous words, 機会きかい (chance). Famously, it also appears on 日本放送協会にっぽんほうそうきょうかい (Nippon Housou Kyoukai or NHK).

会 is also often used as a suffix for meetings or gatherings, such as 忘年会ぼうねんかい (end of year party, literally “forget the year party”), 送別会そうべつかい (farewell party), 運動会うんどうかい (athletic meet), 開会かいかい (opening ceremony) and 同窓会どうそうかい (alumni or class reunion).

Sample sentence: 昨日きのうかれえなかった. (I could not meet him yesterday.)

This Kanji, which slightly reminds me of the Roman numeral V, means “to stand up”, “to rise”, or “to set up”. The 訓読み is た, appearing in verbs such as つ (to stand, to rise) or てる (to set up, to establish); or だ, appearing in verbs such as 役立やくだつ (to be useful, to serve a purpose).

The 音読み is りつ, appearing in words such as 確立かくりつする (to establish) or 独立どくりつ (independence). It also appears in words indicating who manages a certain institutions; for example, 国立こくりつ (National), 州立しゅうりつ (State as in “State University”), 私立しりつ (Private) or 公立 (Public).

Sample sentence: かれは私立大学しりつだいがく勉強べんきょうする. (He studies at a private school.)

This Kanji, which is basically is the Katakana タ over ロ, means “name”. The 訓読み is な, appearing in the word 名前なまえ (“name”). There are two common 音読み: the first is めい, appearing in words such as 有名ゆうめい (famous), 名刺めいし (business card), and 氏名しめい (full name); and the less common みょう, appearing, for example, 名字みょうじ (surname).

Sample sentence: 名前なまえなんですか? (What’s your name?)

This Kanji is somewhat related to the previous one, meaning “house”, “family” or “lineage”. The word “house” is いえ; meanwhile, one’s own house, also written うち. The most common 音読み is か, appearing in family-related words such as 家族かぞく (family), 家庭かてい (family, household) and 家事かじ (housework).

In addition, it can also appear as a suffix indicating a profession, such as 作家さっか (author) and 政治家せいじか (politician).

Sample sentence: 春樹村上はるきむらかみ有名ゆうめい作家さっかです. (Haruki Murakami is a famous writer.)