379 - ～られる (possibility)
Put your study hat on because today's lesson is extremely important.
Come to think of it, I don't have a study hat.
I know what you're thinking, You need to take your studies more seriously, Niko. You don't even have a study hat? You deserve to get hit by a bus.
The thing is, hats have never looked good on me. Maybe I have an abnormally shaped head or something. I don't know.
Anyways... *puts on imaginary study hat*
...today we're looking at the potential form of verbs.
JLPT N4: ～られる (the potential form)
In English, we express potential with helping verbs "can" and "be able to."
In Japanese, however, they change the conjugations of verbs to express potential.
If you have a Japanese textbook, they'll probably show you some beautiful charts of examples. But ain't nobody got time fo' dat.
As is often the case for Japanese conjugations, we do them differently for different types of verbs.
A note about verbs:
I hate talking about different types of verbs. The main reason is that books divide them into Type 1 Verbs and Type 2 Verbs--the most boring names in existence. And I can never remember which type of verb is which type! They also have other names which are similarly confusing, though for varying reasons.
Type 2 Verbs = Ichidan Verbs = -る Verbs
That confuses me, so let's call these "食べる Verbs."
Why? Well, because 食べる (たべる // to eat) is one of the most common Type 2 Verbs. And it's one of those verbs you'll need to be able to translate in a plethora of ways. Hint: The second-to-last kana in these verbs will often, though not always, end in an え (e) sound. 食べる.
Type 1 Verbs = Godan Verbs = -う Verbs
Let's call these "飲む Verbs."
Because, you guessed it, 飲む (のむ // to drink) is a common Type 1 Verb.
Back to potential forms.
💀 💀 💀 💀
Conjugation Rule #1 - With "食べる Verbs," drop the る and add ～られる.
So here are some 食べる Verbs:
食べる（たべる // to eat）
開ける（あける // to open）
覚える（おぼえる // to remember; to memorize）
辞める（やめる // to quit [a job]）
To conjugate these verbs into potential form, we drop the final る：
Then we add られる：
食べられる（たべられる// to be able to eat）
開けられる（あけられる// to be able to open）
覚えられる（おぼえられる// to be able to remember/memorize）
辞められる（やめられる// to be able to quit）
💀 💀 💀 💀
Conjugation Rule #2 - With 飲む Verbs, the final う (u) sound is changed to an え (e) sound, and then we add る：
So here are some 飲む Verbs:
飲む（のむ // to drink）
弾く（ひく // to play [an instrument]）
使う（つかう // to use）
行く（いく // to go）
釣る（つる // to catch [a fish]; to fish）
話す（はなす // to speak）
Change the う (u) sound to an え (e) sound:
Then we add る：
飲める（のめる// to be able to drink）
弾ける（ひける// to be able to play [an instrument]）
使える（つかえる// to be able to use）
行ける（いける// to be able to go）
釣れる（つれる// to be able to catch [a fish]）
話せる（はなせる// to be able to speak）
💀 💀 💀 💀
Conjugation Rule #3 - Is not a rule at all! Just memorize Irregular Verbs...
来る（くる // to come）
する（to do; to make）
来られる（こられる // to be able to come）
出来る（できる // to be able to do）
For more on できる, you should look at this lesson we did earlier: [NDL #372] - JLPT N4: ことができる. Another reason you should read that lesson is that ～ことができる and the potential form that we're looking at today are mostly interchangeable... although ～ことができる does not sound quite as colloquial.
Now, the hard part.
Let's say that those conjugation rules are starting to make sense to you.
That's great, but there is still one more step left until we can use these verbs in sentences:
All potential verbs can be conjugated like "食べる Verbs" (i.e. Type 2 Verbs).
For example, masu-form:
食べられます（たべられます // can eat）
飲めます（のめます // can drink）
覚えられます（おぼえられます // can remember）
行けます（いけます // can go）
That goes for negative forms, too:
食べられません（たべられません // cannot eat）
飲めません（のめません // cannot drink）
覚えられません（おぼえられません // cannot remember）
行けません（いけません // cannot go）
The plain forms of verbs in the present tense are the same as the dictionary forms, right?
Well, the plain forms of potential verbs in the present tense are the same as the "potential dictionary forms."
(If the previous two sentences sound confusing, then you're probably a person that hates talking about verb tenses, also known as a "normal person.")
In other words, do nothing:
食べられる！（たべられる！// [I] can eat!）
飲める！（のめる！// [I] can drink!）
覚えられる！（おぼえられる！// [I] can remember!）
行ける！（いける！// [I] can go!）
Or drop る and add ない for plain present negative:
食べられない！（たべられない！// [I] can't eat!）
飲めない！（のめない！// [I] can't drink!）
覚えられない！（おぼえられない！// [I] can't remember!）
行けない！（いけない！// [I] can't go!）
These are simpler examples, but note that conjugations can start to get quite complicated once we need to mix different forms.
For example, later in this lesson we'll be using the potential form of 釣る (つる // to fish; to catch [a fish]).
The potential form is 釣れる (つれる // to be able to catch [a fish]).
However, we take it a step further and use this verb with the conditional ～たら form, which means something like "if VERB" or "when VERB:"
釣れたら（つれたら // if one is able to catch [a fish]）
But there's good news.
Do not worry if conjugating these verbs is difficult.
We only need to think of the conjugation rules until we have had so much exposure to Japanese that the potential forms of verbs feel like different verbs completely.
For example, you will hear a phrase like 飲めない (のめない // [I] can't drink [it]) so often in Japanese that after a while you won't need to think about changing 飲む to 飲める and then conjugating it to 飲めない at all. You will simply have the word 飲めない burned so deeply into your brain that you can't ever forget that it means "can't drink."
So let's just be patient. Even when Japanese grammar conjugations try to ruin our lives.
Like in English, our potential (="can") verbs can be used to express technical or physical ability:
パクさん は ピアノ が ひけますか。
Can you play the piano, Mr. Park?
Literally: "Park-san + は + piano + が + can play?"
No, I cannot.
Literally: "no, + cannot play."
Note #1: When addressing a person formally, you can just say their name followed by ‐さん. It is possible to call someone "you," but you run the risk of sounding rude if you do not understand the nuance of the word you're using in the particular situation you're using it. So be careful!
Note #2: Usually a transitive verb like 弾く (ひく // to play) will take the particle を, but when using potential-form verbs this particle will often change to が. When I originally learned this grammar point from a Japanese teacher, they told me that this always happens, but that's not true. It just happens quite often. Understanding the differences in nuance and whatnot between を and が and which is better in a given situation will take time. So let's not worry about it too much right now.
この びん の ふた を あけられますか。
Can you open this bottle?
Literally: "this + bottle + の + lid + を + can open + か."
やって みます。 かして ください。
I'll try. Please hand it to me.
Literally: "try (and) do. + lend (and) + please."
Also like in English, we can use potential forms to talk about rules stating what you "can" and "can't" do:
しけんちゅう、 けいたでんわ は つかえません。
はじまる まえ に でんげん を きって おいて ください。
Mobile phones cannot be used during the test.
Please turn them off before the test begins.
Literally, Line #1: "in the middle of the test, + mobile phone + は + cannot use."
Literally, Line #2: "begin + before + に + power + を + cut (and) + please."
Potential forms can also be used to talk about situations which prevent or allow us to do something:
あした の ぼうねんかい に こられますか。
Can you come to the end-of-year party tomorrow?
Literally: "tomorrow + の + end-of-year party + に + can come + か."
Note: Having a 忘年会 (ぼうねんかい), literally a "forget + year + party / meeting," in December is common for most companies in Japan.
いいえ、 よてい が あって いけません。
No, I already have other plans, so I can't go.
Literally: "no, + plan / schedule + が + have (=there are) (and) + cannot go."
どうして カニ を たべない んですか。
Why aren't you eating any crab? It's really good.
Literally: "why + crab + を + not eat + ん + です + か. + tasty + です + よ."
アレルギー で たべられない んです。
I'm allergic, so I can't eat it.
Literally: "allergy + で + cannot eat + ん + です."
A note about the potential form of 食べる：
Generally speaking, the correct potential form of this verb is:
食べられる（たべられる // can eat）
But in spoken Japanese, it is very common to drop the ら and say:
食べれる（たべれる // can eat）
Your Japanese teacher might mark it wrong on a test, but people say it all the time, so I don't think it qualifies as "incorrect."
The same thing happens with 来る (くる // to come):
来られる（こられる // can come）
来れる（これる // can come）
Note: Remember that the く in 来る becomes こ in the potential form!
And for our final potential form verb, we have a somewhat difficult conjugation, which I mentioned earlier in the lesson:
じゅっぴき つれたら おしえて ください。
If you (can) catch ten, please tell me.
Literally: "ten (little animals) + if were able to catch + tell me (and) + please."
Some verbs cannot use potential forms.
That are many verbs which cannot use potential forms. Many such verbs already have meanings related to ability or capacity.
見える（みえる // to be visible; to [be able to] see [something]）
聞こえる（きこえる // to be audible; to be heard; to [be able to] hear [something]）
分かる（わかる // to understand）
入る（はいる // to fit [inside of something]）
Note: 入る (はいる) can also mean "to enter," in which case it can be used as a potential verb: 入れる (はいれる // to be able to enter). However, when talking about whether or not something "fits [inside of something]," we cannot use the potential form. So if you can't enter a room because you're too scared, you can't 入れる. But if you can't fit 30 books into your backpack, then your books don't 入る.
とおく に とんでいる とり が みえますか。
Can you see that bird flying way up [way over] there?
Literally: "far + に + is flying + bird + が + is visible + か."
いいえ、 なにも みえません。
No, I can't see anything.
Literally: "no, + nothing + is not visible."
Additionally, verbs cannot be used in potential forms if they do not express volition.
In other words, if the verb expresses something that is not normally under someone's control, we cannot change it into a potential verb.
The examples can explain this better than I can:
困る（こまる // to be troubled; to be in a bind）
悩む（なやむ // to be burdened by; to be distressed; to be troubled [emotionally]）
疲れる（つかれる // to be tired）
If that sounds confusing, just don't worry about it. Chances are that you won't feel the need to incorrectly make these verbs into potential form.
That was a long, in-depth lesson... but that's because this grammar point is so incredibly useful and important to learn.
Read this lesson 100 times if you must to, but be sure you master the potential form of verbs.
Noticed any typos we've missed or other issues?
Report them here at this link.
Have questions about something in this lesson? Something not quite clicking yet? Join our discord community and discuss any questions / comments with us and fellow students.
You can join by heading to this link.