Japanese Grammar

Japanese Potential Form: (ら)れる and ことができる

Japanese Potential Form

Last time, you learned how to express change in Japanese, e.g. “先生せんせいになる: I will become a teacher,” and “ども先生せんせいにする: I will make my child a teacher”. Furthermore, there may be times when you want to say “I can become a teacher.” In this lesson, you will learn how to express potential.

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Explanation for How Japanese Potential Form Works

Table of Contents
Conjugation Rule
Three Functions
Three Sentence Patterns
る VS. える and く VS. こえる

In English, you express potential by placing “can” or “able to” before verbs. In Japanese, you don’t place anything, but have to conjugate verbs.

Conjugation Rule

Ru-verb: To Replace ru with rareru

  Plain Potential
To see, look, watch 見る (miru) られる (mirareru)
To wear 着る (kiru) られる (kirareru)
To eat 食べる (taberu) 食べられる (taberareru)
To answer 答える (kotaeru) 答えられる (kotaerareru)

U-verbs: To Replace u with eru

  Plain Potential
To write 書く (kaku) ける (kakeru)
To speak 話す (hanasu) せる (hanaseru)
To stand 立つ (tatu *tu = tsu) てる (tateru)
To drink 飲む (nomu) める (nomeru)

Two Exceptions

  Plain Potential
To do する (suru) できる (dekiru)
To come 来る (kuru) 来られる (korareru)

As we said above, English has two ways to express potential. Similarly, Japanese has another form, which is …ことができる. You can consider it as nominalizer こと + ができる and thus you are allowed to directly connect verbs with こと. Both of the meanings are almost the same.

る => られる or ることができる
く => ける or くことができる
する => できる or することができる
る => られる or ることができる

Potential Form without ら

Nowadays, younger generations conjugates ru-verbs and by omitting ら. Grammatically speaking, it is not correct, but sounds natural to the majority of Japanese people today.


Three Functions


[わたしは / が] ほんうた うたえる / うたえます
[Topic / Subject] Direct Object Verb: Potential Form
[I] can sing Japanese songs.

The first function is to express ability. You can simply consider “can” and “able to” are the equivalent in English. Here are more examples.

フランスはなすことが(できる / できます)。
[I] can speak French.
タバコを(える / えます)。
[I] can smoke.
からりょうべられ(ない / ません)。
As for spicy dishes, [I] cannot eat [it].
100ひゃくめーとる10じゅうびょうで(はしれた / はしれました)。
[I] could run 100 meters in ten seconds.


[わたしは / が] 風邪かぜ 学校がっこう やすめた / やすめました
[Topic / Subject] Reason Direct Object Verb: Potential Form
[I] could be absent from school because [I got] cold.

The second function is to express situations. There are some cases where you can situationally do something. You can express such things by using the same way as above.

今日きょうはやいえに(かえられる / かえられます)。
As for today, [I] can go home early.
明日あしたひるまで(られる / られます)。
As for tomorrow, [I] can sleep until daytime.


このパソコンは まだ 使つかえる / 使つかえます
Topic / Subject Adverb Verb: Potential Form
This PC is still usable.

The third function is to express attributes. This can roughly be considered as “-able/-ible” in English. In this context, the particle を disappears and the topic particle は often takes an important role.

カエルはべ(られる / られます)。
Frogs are edible.
かいしゅう(できる /  できます)。
Machines are repairable.
このはしわたれ(ない / ません)。
This bridge cannot be crossed.
むかし、このびょうなおせ(なかった / ませんでした)。
This disease was not curable years ago.

Three Sentence Patterns

The conjugation and the functions of the potential form are not difficult, but you need to know one more thing in order to compose natural sentences. That is the type of sentence patterns.

Particle を (Direct Object)

[わたしは / が] この問題もんだい ける / けます
[Topic / Subject] Direct Object Verb: Potential Form
[I] can solve this question.

The first pattern is to use the particle を to express direct objects. Some grammar guidebooks say the particle should be が. However, the combination between the particle を and the potential form is frequently used in practice. Actually, the proper usage is still controversial among linguists. Just know that when you use ことができる, the particle を is more suitable.

この問題もんだいくことが(できる / できます)。
[I] can solve this question.
この問題もんだいくことが(できる / できます)。
=> Unnatural!

Particle が (Objects of Potential)

[わたしは / が] この問題もんだい  ける / けます
[Topic / Subject] Object of Potential Verb: Potential Form
[I] can solve this question.

The second pattern is to use the particle が. As you learned in the previous lesson, the particle が expresses objects of potential, e.g. ボブはほんが上手い (Bob is good at Japanese). You can utilize this for the potential form as well. In a lot of cases, the particle を and が are interchangeable. However, when you use できる, the particle が is more suitable.

わたしけい(できる / できます)。
I can do accounting.
わたしけい(できる / できます)。
=> Unnatural!

…には (Possession of Abstract Attribute)

わたしには この問題もんだい けない / けません
Topic / Subject Object of Potential Verb: Potential Form
I cannot solve this question.

The third pattern is to use には, which can express possession of abstract attributes, e.g. ボブには才能さいのうがある (Bob has a talent). This is applicable for ability, too. This sounds natural mostly in negative sentences. Affirmative ones are not suitable. Note: this is often used with the particle は with the function to express contrast or the particle が.

ボブにはこのかんめ(ない / ません)よ。
As for this kanji, Bob cannot [it].
ぼくにはえいうたうたえ(ない / ません)よ。
As for English songs, I cannot sing [it].

Be careful; the は of には is sometimes omitted.

ボブにこのかんめ(ない / ません)よ。
ぼくえいうたうたえ(ない / ません)よ。

Considering the characteristic of the function, this is not suitable when you cannot do something due to situations. For example, if you are invited to a party, but you cannot join due to your busy schedule, sentence should be like this.

僕にはパーティに(行けない / 行けません)。
=> Unnatural!
ぼくパーティに(けない / けません)。
I cannot go to the party.

る VS. える and く VS. こえる

The difference is simple. る and く are transitive verbs while える and こえる are intransitive verbs. As you learned, intransitive verbs indicate natural or automatic actions. える and こえる mean “to be seen (visible)” and “to be heard (audible),” and don’t have the potential form.

さんが(える / えます)。
Mt. Fuji is visible.
どもこえが(こえる / こえます)。
Children’s voice is audible.

You sometimes intentionally look at or listen to something. In that case, you use the transitive ones: る and く because there must be objects. Unlike the above, they have the potential form.

えいを(る / ます)。
[I] will watch a movie.
ついにほんえいを(られる / られます)。
[I] can finally watch a Japanese movie.
音楽おんがくを(く  / きます)。
[I] will listen to music.
ほんうたなまで(ける / けます)。
[I] can listen to Japanese songs live.


  1. When conjugating ru-verbs and る, ら is often omitted.
  2. There are three functions: to express ability, situations, and attributes.
  3. There are three sentence patterns: using を, が, and には.
  4. える and こえる are intransitive verbs and don’t have the potential form.

The potential form is one of the most frequently occurring expressions in everyday life. Please master the usage here. Also, you will learn some utilization of the potential form later. Next, you will learn Japanese passive form.

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