Japanese basic grammar topic Potential Form

Potential Form

Expressing the ability to do something

In Japanese, the ability to do a certain action is expressed by conjugating the verb rather than adding a word such as the words "can" or "able to" in the case of English. All verbs conjugated into the potential form become a ru-verb.

The Potential Form


1.    見る み・る (ru-verb) - to see

2.    遊ぶ あそ・ぶ (u-verb) - to play

3.    する (exception) - to do

4.    来る く・る (exception) - to come

5.    出来る で・き・る (ru-verb) - to be able to do

6.    食べる た・べる (ru-verb) - to eat

7.    着る き・る (ru-verb) - to wear

8.    信じる しん・じる (ru-verb) - to believe

9.    寝る ね・る (ru-verb) - to sleep

10.  起きる お・きる (ru-verb) - to wake; to occur

11.  出る で・る (ru-verb) - to come out

12.  掛ける か・ける (ru-verb) - to hang

13.  調べる しら・べる (ru-verb) - to investigate

14.  話す はな・す (u-verb) - to speak

15.  書く か・く (u-verb) - to write

16.  待つ ま・つ (u-verb) - to wait

17.  飲む の・む (u-verb) - to drink

18.  取る と・る (u-verb) - to take

19.  死ぬ し・ぬ (u-verb) - to die

20.  買う か・う (u-verb) - to buy

21.  漢字 かん・じ - Kanji

22.  残念 ざん・ねん (na-adj) - unfortunate

23.  今週末 こん・しゅう・まつ - this weekend

24.  行く い・く (u-verb) - to go

25.  もう - already

Once again, the conjugation rules can be split into three major groups: ru-verbs, u-verbs, and exception verbs. However, the potential form of the verb する (meaning "to do") is a special exception because it becomes a completely different verb: できる 出来る

Rules for creating potential form

·     For ru-verbs: Replace the 「る」 with られる.
 → られる

·     For u-verbs: Change the last character from a / u / vowel sound to the equivalent / e / vowel sound and add 「る」.
 →  → 遊べ

·     Exceptions:

1.    する becomes できる

2.    くる becomes こられる

Remember that all potential verbs become ru-verbs.
















Sample ru-verbs











Sample u-verbs







Exception Verbs






It is also possible to just add れる instead of the full られる for ru-verbs. For example, 食べる becomes 食べれる instead of 食べられる. I suggest learning the official られる conjugation first because laziness can be a hard habit to break and the shorter version, though common, is considered to be slang.


1.    漢字は書けますか
Can you write kanji?

2.    残念だが、今週末は行けない
It's unfortunate, but can't go this weekend.

3.    もう信じられない
I can't believe it already.

Potential forms do not have direct objects


1.    富士山 ふ・じ・さん - Mt. Fuji

2.    登る のぼ・る (u-verb) - to climb

3.    重い おも・い (i-adj) - heavy

4.    荷物 に・もつ - baggage

5.    持つ も・つ (u-verb) - to hold

The potential form indicates that something is possible but no actual action is actually taken. While the potential form remains a verb, since it is describing the state of something you must not use the direct object 「を」 as you have done with regular verbs. For example the following sentences are incorrect.

1.    富士山登れた

2.    重い荷物持てます

Here are the corrected versions:

1.    富士山登れた
Was able to climb Fuji-san.

2.    重い荷物持てます
Am able to hold heavy baggage.

Are 見える and 聞こえる exceptions?


1.    見える み・える (ru-verb) - to be visible

2.    聞こえる き・こえる (ru-verb) - to be audible

3.    今日 きょう - today

4.    晴れる は・れる (ru-verb) - to be sunny

5.    富士山 ふ・じ・さん - Mt. Fuji

6.    友達 とも・だち - friend

7.    おかげ - thanks to

8.    映画 えい・が - movie

9.    ただ - free of charge; only

10.  見る み・る (ru-verb) - to see

11.  こと - event, matter

12.  出来る で・き・る (ru-verb) - to be able to do

13.  久しぶり ひさ・しぶり - after a long time

14.  かれ - he; boyfriend

15.  こえ - voice

16.  聞く き・く (u-verb) - to ask; to listen

17.  周り まわ・り - surroundings

18.  うるさい (i-adj) - noisy

19.  言う い・う (u-verb) - to say

20.  あまり/あんまり - not very (when used with negative)

There are two verbs 見える and 聞こえる that mean that something is visible and audible, respectively. When you want to say that you can see or hear something, you'll want to use these verbs. If however, you wanted to say that you were given the opportunity to see or hear something, you would use the regular potential form. However, in this case, it is more common to use the type of expression as seen in example 3.


1.    今日は晴れて、富士山が見える
(It) cleared up today and Fuji-san is visible.

2.    友達のおかげで、映画はただで見られた
Thanks to (my) friend, (I) was able to watch the movie for free.

3.    友達のおかげで、映画をただで見ることができた
Thanks to (my) friend, (I) was able to watch the movie for free.

You can see that example 3 uses the generic noun for an event to say literally, "The event of seeing movie was able to be done." which essentially means the same thing as 見られる. You can also just use generic noun substitution to substitute for こと.

1.    友達のおかげで、映画をただで見るができた

Here's some more examples using 聞く, can you tell the difference? Notice that 聞こえる always means "audible" and never "able to ask".

1.    久しぶりに彼の声が聞けた
I was able to hear his voice for the first time in a long time.

2.    周りがうるさくて、彼が言っていることがあんまり聞こえなかった
The surroundings were noisy and I couldn't hear what he was saying very well.

ある, yet another exception


1.    そんな - that sort of

2.    こと - event, matter

3.    有り得る あ・り・え・る/あ・り・う・る (ru-verb) - to possibly exist

4.    かれ - he; boyfriend

5.    寝坊【ね・ぼう - oversleep

6.    する (exception) - to do

7.    それ - that

8.    はなし - story

You can say that something has a possibility of existing by combining ある and the verb 得る to produce あり得る. This essentially means あることができる except that nobody actually says that, they just use あり得る. This verb is very curious in that it can be read as either ありうる or ありえる,however; all the other conjugations such as ありえない」、「ありえた」、and ありえなかった only have one possible reading using 「え」.


1.    そんなことはありうる
That kind of situation/event is possible (lit: can exist).

2.    そんなことはありえる
That kind of situation/event is possible (lit: can exist).

3.    そんなことはありえない
That kind of situation/event is not possible (lit: cannot exist).

4.    彼が寝坊したこともありうる
It's also possible that he overslept. (lit: The event that he overslept also possibly exists.)

5.    それは、ありえない話だよ
That's an impossible story/scenario. (lit: That story/scenario cannot exist.)


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