Basic Potential in Japanese

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Potential I: The Potential Form

     Expressing potential in Japanese isn't easy. There are many ways not exactly the same to do this, and there are restrictions on these phrases that don't exist for the English "can". In Japanese, the potential is intertwined with the concept of volition. This, not surprisingly, affects the grammar. 

Normal Potential Form of Verbs

The direct object of a potential sentence is treated as the subject of an intransitive verb. The object is still the object. が and を, though, may mark the object. There are rules behind it, but for now, we will use them interchangeably. 

  Ex. 可能形 Past Negative Negative Past
 一段 食べる 食べられる 食べられた 食べられない 食べられなかった
 五段 行く 行かれる → 行ける 行けた 行けない 行けなかった
 来る 来る 来(こ)られる 来られた 来られない 来られなかった
 する する できる できた できない できなかった
 形容詞 正しい 正しく(して)いられる 正しく(して)いられた 正しく(して)いられない 正しく(して)いられなかった
 形容動詞 幸せだ 幸せでいられる 幸せでいられた 幸せでいられない 幸せでいられなかった


1. 漢字などけますか。
    Can you write Kanji and what not?

2. 仕方しかたがありませんが、明日公園けません。
    It can't be helped, but I can't go to the park tomorrow.

3. 日本語めますか。
    Can you read a Japanese book?

4. このキノコはべられますか。
    Is this mushroom edible?

5. 私会社かいしゃ出世しゅっせできたのは、うんがよかったまでのことです。
    It's just luck that I was able to succeed at the company.

6. そのはできすぎで(、)しんじられません。
     The story is too good to be true.

7. そこまで歩けますか。
    Can I walk there?

8. いくつまでかぞえられるのか。(Somewhat rude; a sense of doubt is portrayed)
     How far can you count to?

9. 自転車じてんしゃれますか。
     Can you ride a bicycle?

10. 鳥べる。
     Birds can fly.
     Literally: Birds can fly through the sky. 

11. 僕学校では日本語ならえません。
      You can't take Japanese at my school.  

12. 明日仕事があります。ですから、けません。
      I have work tomorrow. So, I can't go.

13. 連絡れんらくれなくなったから、帰ってこないか心配しんぱいした。
      Because we lost contact with him, we worried whether he would come back home.

14. おがなくて、バスにれませんでした。
      I didn't have money, so I couldn't ride the bus. 

15. ピアノがけますか。
     Can you play the piano?

16. この金曜日られますか。
      Can you come next Friday?

17. うちのぼうはもうヨチヨチ歩けますよ。(Feminine)
     Our baby can already waddle around.

18. ファックスをおくれますか。
      Can I send a fax?

19. それは言えてるね。
      Idiomatic: That's exactly it. 

Word Note: See that いえる, aside from literally mean "can say", can also be used idiomatically. 

20. 将棋しょうぎではてる。  (Contrasting)
      I can win at shogi.

Word Note将棋 is Japanese chess.

21. お酒ですか。ええ、飲めますよ。
      Liquor? Yes, you can drink it.

Meaning Note: In the above sentence, the potential is used in showing permission. Or, depending on context, it may refer to the liquor in question being safe to drink. 

22. この水、飲めますか。
      Can I drink this water?

Meaning Note: This isn't asking about the ability to drink water. Rather, it's about whether it's OK. The water could be dirty. People can still drink dirty water, but should they is the question. 

23. どこにめられますか。
      Where can I park my car?

24. {遅おくれ・うしなった時間}じかんではつぐなえない。
      Money cannot pay for lost time.


Here we have a classic battle between script and nuance. Let's begin. 

無くなる is uncommon, but = なくなる. It can be used to show that something has become no longer in existence, or something is used up, something is lost. Thus, it is intransitive. And, you have several broad definitions to think through rather than one English keyword.

亡くなる  Comes from the same source as above but refers to the passing away of an individual in a respectful/euphemistic fashion.

亡くす is light being died on by someone in your loved ones, and losing that individual. 幼時に父を亡くす。This comes from 亡く + す(る) as expected of the same source as 無くす, which can be broken down likewise. So, なくなる can be broken down to なく+なる. It's just for the definitions thus far, they can be viewed as a single word, just like how words in any language are etymologically compounded but no longer thought of as being so. However, when なくなる is used for ないようになる, it is viewed as being separate and is not written in Kanji. 

無くす = 失(く)す = (喪す)
1. To lose something that you've had up till now.
2. To get rid of a bid situation.
3. When used in the sense of 亡くす, it can be spelled as 喪す. However, due to the government's attempts to lower spelling options, it is no longer prevalent. 

Now, we have 失う・喪う.
1. To lose something that had been in your possession or on you(r person). 
2. To lose the chance at getting something.
3. To be gone from having been taken/stolen from (you).
4. To end up not knowing the path to take. 
5. To lose (a loved one). This is where the spelling 喪う comes into play.

So, we see that there is heavy interchangeability between the two. 

鍵が{無くなる・なくなる}。 = For the key to be lost/disappear/be gone.
鍵を{なくす・無くす・失(く)す} = To lose a key. 
鍵を失う = To lose a key. (Sounds more like it has been in your possession or on your person) To get rid of ....X A 鍵 isn't a 事柄. 


連用形 + は+ しない is like a strong "won't" in the sense of not being able to do something.

25. だれかぎいはしない。
     Nobody's key will work. 

Verb + に + Negative Potential Verb

This is an emphatic pattern used to show that even when you want to do something, you can't.  

26. 雪がもって、出かけるに出かけられない。
      The snow piled up, and we were unable to go out (though we wanted to).

27. 嵐が強くて、行くに行けない。
      The storm is so strong that I can't even go. 

 More Verbs in the Potential

 Can go home
 帰られる Can swim
 Can die
 死ねる Can buy
 Can drink
 飲める Can wait
 Can take 取れる Can sing 歌える

Verbs that Cannot Have Potentials

Non-volitional verbs cannot have potential forms. This includes verbs of natural phenomenon like 降る, ひかる, ながれる, and こおる, those concerning human emotion and physiology (いたむ, しびれる (to be paralyzed), うらやむ (to be jealous), any verbs that end in ある (as they have no volition), and any pattern that has no control involved like phrases with つく and いく such as 想像そうぞうがつく (one can imagine) and 納得なっとくがいく (to accept as valid).

              Notice that these are all intransitive verbs. However, it’s not to say that all intransitive verbs don't have potential forms. Think of motion verbs like 走る, 行く, 帰る, もどる, 来る, etc. All of these have potentials because volition is involved in their meanings.

Set Phrase Note: あられる, the potential of ある, does happen to exist in the phrase あられもない, which means "impossible". As this is the case, it doesn't contradict what has been said above because there is no volition in impossibility.  


   とても in a negative sentence means "can't possibly".  

28. とってもじゃないけど、そんなもん(なんか)買えねーよ。(Vulgar)
   I can't possibly buy something like that! 

29. とても泳ぎきれない。
   I can't possibly completely swim (that distance).  


   なかなか in a negative sentence means "not easily/by no means". It's used a lot with potential expressions.  

30. 漢字がなかなかおぼえられなくてこまっている学生は、たくさんいますね。
   There are a lot of students that are troubled at not being able to quite memorize Kanji, aren't there? 

31.  昨夜さくや、なかなかねむれなかったから、今日はとっても眠くてたまらない。
    Since I couldn't easily sleep last night, today I really want to sleep and can't stand it. 

32. 宿題がなかなかできなくて、困っています。
   I'm troubled that I can't seem to do my homework. 

33. タバコはよくないと分かっていても、なかなかやめられなくて、困っている人が多いです。
There are a lot of people that can't quite quit smoking even though they know that tobacco is bad.

34.  時差じさボケで、なかなかられなくて、こまりました。
    I was troubled because I couldn't quite sleep due to jet lag. 

35.  漢字を3000覚えるという目標もくひょうがあるが、なかなか勉強する時間がない。
    I have a goal of learning 3,000 Kanji, but I don't quite have the time.   
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