The potential form in Japanese

Author Anna Baffa Volpe for article 'The potential form in Japanese'

Anna Baffa Volpe

11 min reading time

We can summarise the Japanese potential form in 2 suffixes れる and られる and the verb できる.

  • ()(のう)(けい) kanōkei is the word indicating the potential (可能) form (形)
  • ()(のう)(どう)() kanō dōshi are the potential verbs (動詞)
  • ()(のう)kanō na is the な Adjective meaning capable, realisable, feasible, achievable

The potential form in Japanese

The potential form is used to express the possibility and the ability to perform an action.

  • can do
  • be able to do

For Ichidan Verbs that have only one base, it is enough to omit the final る syllable and add the suffix られる for the plain form in the present affirmative,

  • られない for the present negative,
  • られた for the past affirmative,
  • られなかった for the negative past tense.
  • ()める decide becomes ()められる can decide
  • ()きる wake up becomes ()きられる can wake up


Even if I go to bed early, I can't get up in the morning

For the Godan (5 bases) Verbs, we use instead the Base in E or B4 combined with the suffix る for the present affirmative in the plain form.

  • ()buy becomes ()える can buy
  • ()read becomes ()める can read

Here are the other forms:

  • B4 + ない: ()えない can't buy, negative present,
  • B4 + た: ()えた could buy, past tense,
  • B4 + なかった: ()えなかった couldn't buy, negative past.

Irregular Verbs

  • ()come becomes ()られる can come
  • する do becomes できる can do, can

Omission of ら in informal context

Note for Ichidan Verbs: in the suffix られる the syllable ら is often omitted:

For example you can find ()べられる as ()べれる.


This exceptional form is to be considered colloquial and informal, in case of examinations and in formal situations I recommend following the rule.

There is an expression that indicates the omission of ら and is Ra nuki kotoba()(こと)(), the term without ra.

Another example of omission is in the ている form which loses a vowel and becomes てる as in:

  • ()めている informally ()めてる
  • ()んでいる colloquially ()んでる

When to use the potential form in れる and られる

This form expresses the ability to do something and also the ability to perform a certain action. I am able to perform that action, I am capable of it.

There are no external impediments and I can perform (or cannot when negative) that action.

Let us see how particles behave in this form.


I eat raw fish.


I can eat raw fish.

The meaning is that I have no problem eating raw fish, I have no impediment or resistance.

The potential form uses the particle が to indicate the object.

It is also possible to use を, with the exception of the verb できる which requires .


Mariko can speak French.

Phrase / title of a blog on food tastes:


I couldn't eat natto for 20 years, but I was recently able to start eating it.

Forms of ()べる in the sentence:

  • ()べれなかった: potential form in the past tense (without ら, informal) could not eat
  • ()べれるようになった potential form in the past tense without ら + ようになる: become able to eat

If you want to search for the conjugation of the verb the terms are (どう)()(かつ)(よう).

  • (いち)(だん)(かつ)(よう) ichidan katsuyō conjugation of ichidan verbs
  • ()(だん)(かつ)(よう) godan katsuyō conjugation of godan verbs

The potential form with できる

This form is particularly used to express those activities that require preparation, study, application for which I can say I'm able to, I'm capable of.

How to form the structure with できる

The first form consists of:

  • the subject (if expressed) with the particle
  • a noun followed by
  • and the verb できる.

This form expresses as anticipated the ability to perform a certain activity.


I can speak French.

As you can see できる expresses a generic ability, it implies the fact that I can speak, can write, can understand.

できる in kanji is ()()る, being able to do.

Phrase from an article developing the theme of the artificial (人工) intelligence (知能):


What can and cannot artificial intelligence do?

The second form consists of:

  • the verb in the base in U or dictionary form +
  • こと or の with the meaning of thing, situation
  • the particle
  • the verb できる can

Here are the various forms of できる:

  • できない in the present negative
  • できた in the past tense
  • できなかった in the negative past tense


I am incapable of lying.

Comment on an Origami Tutorial Video:

It was very easy and I was able to remember it immediately.
(おぼ)える means memorize, remember, learn


It was very easy and I was able to learn it immediately.

Differences between れる / られる and ことができる

The expression with できる is generally preferred in formal situations, while れる-られる is more informal and colloquial.

As a start, it is easier to use できる with the verb in the dictionary form and not have to think about the conjugation of the verb with the different suffixes.


A person who cannot lie.

  • (うそ)をつく tell lies, lie
  • 1: (うそ)をつくことができない adding ことができない: can't lie
  • 2: (うそ)がつけない conjugating the verb つく to the potential negative form つけない: can't lie

Verb する and potential form

The structure composed by する combined with a noun replaces する with できる.

  • (りょう)()する: cook
  • (りょう)()することができる: can cook

The potential form of the structure Noun + する is used in its abbreviated form and the sentence becomes: Noun + が + できる.


I can't cook.


Mr Yamada cannot drive a car.

Verbs of perception

We have some verbs with two potential forms; these are the verbs related to the senses, to the perceptions:

  • ()see, watch
  • ()られる can see, can watch
  • ()える be visible

If I say:


I can watch movies.

  • I have TV at home, I have time, I have a cinema near my home, I can decide to see or not to see the film. I have the possibility, it's my choice.

Instead, I can say:


I can't read (see) small letters.

  • I have problems of sight, I have physical impediments that do not allow me to see or there is no visibility due to weather (fog or rain). In these cases there is no choice or intention on the part of the subject, that is how it is.


The Eiffel Tower is visible from Remi's house window.

Another verb of perception commonly used:

  • ()hear, listen
  • ()ける can hear
  • ()こえる be audible


You can listen to music on your smartphone.

  • The device was made with this function, I can listen to the music or I can decide not to listen to it.

Instead, I say:


The sound of people talking and cars outside of the apartment building is very loud.

  • These voices and noises come naturally, I have no choice.

Practising the potential forms

I suggest in the exercise to start with single verbs, exercise the various forms and then gradually make longer sentences.

  • ()
  • ()ける
  • ()けない
  • ()けなかった


I can't go to the swimming pool.


Today I can't go to the swimming pool.


I can't go to the swimming pool today because I have to study.

We have seen rules and uses of verbs in the potential form and some suggestions on how to exercise this part.


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