られる / える (Potential Form) Japanese Grammar Lesson
Grammar Type: Auxiliary Verb
Essential Meaning: Able to do X / Can do X / X can be done
- Group 1 Verbs: Conditional Form + る
- E.g. 話せる [X can speak]
- Group 2 Verbs: Verb Stem + られる
- E.g. 食べられる [X can eat]
- Irregular Verbs:
- 来る = 来られる [X can come]
- する = 出来る [X can do]
- This is the potential verb form, which translates to “Can do X” or “Able to do X“. In other words, it expresses the idea that one has the potential to do something or that something has the potential to be done.
- When a potential sentence contains an experiencer, the sentence often takes the XはYが construction where X is the experiencer and Y is the thing that can be done. Note that Y (the thing that can be done) can also be marked by を (Direct Object) most of the time, with the difference being that を (Direct Object) tends to indicate a higher level volition than が. So if the sentence indicates a strong sense of choice / volition on the part of the experiencer, を (Direct Object) is the appropriate particle to mark object Y.
- E.g. 私はやめようと思えばいつでも今の仕事をやめられる。[If I feel that I want to quiet, I can quit my job at any time.] In this example, the speaker has the volitional choice to quit or not to quit, so を (Direct Object) is the appropriate particle.
- E.g. 僕はやっとの思いで自分をおさえられた。[I was barely able to control my emotions.] Controlling one’s emotions implies volition, so を (Direct Object) is an appropriate choice in this case.
- With できる (the potential form of する), the object always takes the が particle.
- E.g. 私はチェスができる。[I can play chess.]
- を (Space) and を (Origin Of Movement) can not be replaced by が when the predicate is a potential form verb.
- E.g. 私はあの公園を夜一人で歩けない。[I can’t walk through the park alone at night.] This is an example of を (Space). It cannot be replaced by が.
- E.g. この道を靴をはかずに歩けますか。[You can walk on this street without wearing shoes.] 道を is an example of を (Space). It cannot be replaced by が.
- E.g. 今日はうちを出られません。[I can’t leave my house today.] This is an example of を (Origin Of Movement). It cannot be replaced by が.
- If the experiencer is irrelevant or is obvious from context, he or she can be omitted and the object of the action can be marked wth the は particle. If the object of the action were instead marked with が, it would imply that the object is the experiencer.
- E.g. この字は読めない。[I can’t read this character.] It’s obvious from context that the speaker is the experiencer.
- E.g. *この字が読めない。[This character is unable to read] が implies that the character has personal agency, which is nonsensical.
- E.g. この水は飲めない。[You can’t drink this water.] In this example, the experiencer is irrelevant; what matters is that the water is undrinkable.
- Non-volitional verbs such as 分かる [To understand], 要る [To need], ある [To exist], 開く [To open], and くさる [To rot] are not used in the potential form.
- Potentiality can also be expressed using the ことができる construction rather than the normal られる / れる conjugation. The difference is that ことができる is more formal.
- E.g. 私はピアノを弾くことができます。[I can play the piano.]
- The potential verb endings られる / える conjugate as Group 2 verbs ( e.g. 話せる, 話せない, 話せて, 話せた, et cetera).
- In informal conversation, Group 2 verbs can be conjugated as Verb Stem + れる (i.e. the ら can be dropped).
- E.g. チーズケーキが食べられない。[I can’t eat cheesecake.]
- E.g. チーズケーキが食べれない。[I can’t eat cheesecake.] This is the informal version with ら dropped.
私は日本語が読める。[I can read Japanese.]
この水は飲めない。[This water is undrinkable.]
ブラウンさんは刺身が食べられない。[Mr. Brown can’t eat sashimi.]
寺田さんはテニスが出来る。[Terada-san can play tennis.]
この字は読めない。[I can’t read this character.]
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