Expressing potential

Potential Form

The potential form describes the feasibility of an action. The rules for changing a verb into the potential form is given below. All verbs in the potential form become ru-verbs.

Rules for conjugating to potential form

  • For ru-verbs: Replace the 「る」 with 「られる」

    1. 食べ+られる = 食べられる
    2. +られる = 出られる
  • For u-verbs: Replace the u-vowel sound with the e-vowel equivalent and attach 「る」.

    1. +め+る = 飲める
    2. +て+る = 持てる
  • Exceptions:
    1. する → 出来る【で・き・る】
    2. くる → こられる
    3. ある → あり得る 【あり・うる/あり・える】


  1. 漢字 【かん・じ】 – Kanji
  2. 読む 【よ・む】(u-verb) – to read
  3. 明日 【あした】 – tomorrow
  4. 仕事 【し・ごと】 – work
  5. 今日 【きょう】 – today
  6. 飲む 【の・む】(u-verb) – to drink
  7. イベント – event
  8. 準備 【じゅん・び】 – preparation
  9. ~まで (particle) – until ~
  10. 出来る 【で・き・る】(ru-verb) – to be able to do
  1. 漢字は読めますか?
    Can (you) read Kanji?
  2. 明日は仕事だから、今日はあまり飲めない
    Tomorrow is work so can’t drink very much today.
  3. イベントの準備は明日まで出来る
    Can (you) do preparations for (the) event by tomorrow?

For ru-verbs, you can drop the 「ら」 from 「れる」. For example, the potential form 「食べる」 can also be expressed as 「食べれる」 instead of 「食べれる」. However, you should practice with the full conjugation as the shorter form is more casual.


  1. バス – bus
  2. ~時 【~じ】 – hour counter
  3. 出る 【で・る】(ru-verb) – to come out
  4. 起きる 【お・きる】 (ru-verb) – to occur; to awake
  5. 気分 【き・ぶん】 – feeling
  6. 悪い 【わる・い】(i-adj) – bad
  7. あまり – not very (when used with negative)
  1. バスは、7時に出るから、5時に起きれる
    Bus is leaving at 7 so (are you) able to wake up at 5?

  2. 気分が悪いから、今日はあまり食べれない
    Don’t feel good (lit:feeling is bad) so can’t eat very much today.

Events that are possible

Another way to express potential is to use the noun for a generic event: 「こと」(事) and 「できる」. This is used to describe an event that is possible and is more generic than conjugating the verb directly to the potential form.


  1. ここ – here
  2. タバコ – cigarette
  3. 出来る 【で・き・る】(ru-verb) – to be able to do
  4. 吸う 【す・う】 – to breathe in; to smoke
  5. こと – matter; event
  6. この – this
  7. テレビ – TV
  8. 番組 【ばん・ぐみ】 – program (e.g. TV)
  9. まだ – not yet
  10. インターネット – internet
  11. 見る 【み・る】(ru-verb) – to see
  1. ここでタバコを吸うことは、できますか
    Able to smoke cigarette here?
  2. このテレビ番組はまだインターネットで見ることができません
    Not able to watch this TV show on the internet yet.

As you can see from the examples, this pattern is used to describe what is possible (or not) in general rather than for a specific person or thing.

Other potential verbs

  1. 見える 【み・える】 – to be visible
  2. 聞こえる 【き・こえる】 – to be audible
  3. あり得る 【あり・うる/あり・える】 – able to exist

The potential form of 「見る」 and 「聞く」 (「見られる」 and 「聞ける」 respectively) are only used to describe the ability to see and hear, not whether something is visible or audible. Japanese has two separate verbs to describe the latter: 「見える」 and 「聞こえる」. The examples below show the difference between the ability or capability to see/hear versus what is visible/audible.


  1. 後ろ 【うし・ろ】 – behind
  2. 画像 【が・ぞう】 – screen; image; picture
  3. パソコン – PC, computer
  4. 古い 【ふる・い】(i-adj) – old
  5. 遅い 【おそ・い】(i-adj) – late; slow
  6. 動画 【どう・が】 – video
  7. 私 【わたし】 – me; myself; I
  8. 声 【こえ】 – voice
  9. ラジオ – radio
  10. ネット – net, network, internet
  1. 後ろから画像が見えますか?
    Can (you) see the screen from the back? (lit: Is the screen visible from the back?)
  2. パソコンが古くて遅いから、動画が見られない
    Computer is old and slow so not able to see video. (lit: Because computer is old and slow, not capable of seeing video.
  3. 私の声が聞こえますか?
    Can (you) hear my voice? (lit: Is my voice audible?)
  4. ラジオもネットで聞けるの?
    (You) can listen to radio on (the) net as well? (lit: Able to hear radio on (the) net as well?)

Another verb to pay attention to is 「ある」, which cannot be conjugated to the potential form. Instead, to express that something can exist, you must use the verb 「あり得る」. This verb is very curious in that 「得」 can either be read as 「う」 or 「え」 but if conjugated, it must always be read as 「え」. You may wonder how often one talks about the ability to exist. In practice, this word is primarily used to describe whether a situation or event (こと) can occur.


  1. それは、ありるね。
    That could happen. (lit: That can exist.)
  2. それは、ありるね。
    That could happen. (lit: That can exist.)
  3. それは、ありないよ。
    That can never happen. (lit: That can’t exist.)


  1. 大事 【だい・じ】(na-adj) – important
  2. 漢字 【かん・じ】 – Kanji
  3. 宿題 【しゅく・だい】 – homework
  4. 使う 【つか・う】(u-verb) – to use
  5. 全然 【ぜん・ぜん】 – not at all (when used with negative)
  6. 読む 【よ・む】 (u-verb) – read
  7. うまい (i-adj) – skilled; delicious
  8. 書く 【か・く】(u-verb) – to write
  9. なるべく – as much as possible
  10. 練習 【れん・しゅう】 – practice
  11. 俺 【おれ】- me, myself (slang, masculine)
  12. 写す 【うつ・す】(u-verb) – to copy
  13. 日本語 【に・ほん・ご】 – Japanese language
  14. たくさん – a lot (amount)
  15. それに – besides, moreover
  16. そもそも – in the first place, originally
  17. あんた – you (slang)
  18. 見せる 【み・せる】(ru-verb) – to show
  19. 自分 【じ・ぶん】 – oneself
  20. 時 【とき】 – when
  21. こっそり – secretly
  22. つもり – intention
  23. もう – already; expression of exasperation
  24. 信じる 【しん・じる】 (ru-verb) – to believe

John: Alice-chan, what (are you) doing?

Alice: Homework.

John: What is this? (Are you) using Kanji? (I) can’t read (it) at all.

Alice: (I) can’t write Kanji well yet so (I’m) using Kanji as much as possible and practicing.

John: I don’t use Kanji at all so (I) can’t copy Alice-chan’s homework, you know.

Alice: Japanese uses a lot of Kanji so (it’s) good to practice as much as possible. Besides, (I) won’t show you (my) homework to you in the first place. (You) can’t do (your) homework by yourself?

John: (My) intention was to secretly copy (it) when Alice-chan is not there.

Alice: (I) can’t believe it.

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