Japanese Potential Form Explained

Updated on May 13, 2018


This article will explore the Japanese potential form, which is a special verb conjugation pattern. How the potential form is used and formed will be explained.

Potential Form Overview

The potential form is a special verb conjugation form which conveys a meaning of capability to perform the action in question. This may be a little confusing at first, as the ability or capability to perform an action in English and related languages is always accomplished with the aid of other verbs and adjectives, such as 'can', 'able', and their equivalents.

Japanese Verb Groups

In case you are unfamiliar, there are three verb groups in the Japanese language. Group one verbs constitute all verbs except for the two exception verbs and a variety of verbs which end in る. Group two verbs are all of the verbs which end in る which do not follow group one verb conjugation rules and are conjugated by simply dropping the る ending. There are only two verbs in group three, and they are the two irregular verbs する and くる. Conjugating a verb into its respective potential form will depend on which group the verb in question belongs to.

Verb Group One Conjugation Rule

To conjugate a group one verb into its respective potential form, the verb is first conjugated into its conditional/potential form stem and then the ending る is added. A group one's verb conditional/potential form stem is formed by changing the verb's 'u' infinitive ending hiragana with the corresponding hiragana which ends in 'e':

ぐ (gu) - げ (ge)

む (mu) - め (me)

ぶ (bu) - べ (be)

う (u) - え (e)

働く (hataraku) - (to work)
泳ぐ (oyogu) - (to swim)
呼ぶ (yobu) - (to call)
働け (hatarake)
泳げ (oyoge)
呼べ (yobe)
Potential Form
働ける (hatarakeru) - (can work)
泳げる (oyogeru) - (can swim)
呼べる (yoberu) - (can call)
読む (yomu) - (to read)
立つ (tatsu) - (to stand)
買う (kau) - (to buy)
読め (yome)
立て (tate)
買え (kae)
Potential Form
読める (yomeru) - (can read)
立てる (tateru) - (can stand)
買える (kaeru) - (can buy)

Verb Group Two Conjugation Rule

To conjugate a group two verb into its respective potential form, simply replace the る ending with られる.

食べる (taberu) - (to eat)
見つける (mitsukeru) - (to find)
起きる (okiru) - (to wake up)
食べられる (taberareru) - (able to eat)
見つけられる (mitsukerareru) - (able to find)
起きられる (okirareru) - (able to wake up)

Verb Group Three Conjugation Rules

Group Three only contains the two irregular verbs する and くる. Notice how the verb する (suru) - (to do) takes on a whole new form in its potential form - できる.

する (suru)
来る (kuru)
できる (dekiru)
来られる (korareru)


The potential form is used to express the capability of the subject to perform an action:

今朝起きられませんでした - (kesa okiraremasendeshita) - (I could not wake up this morning.)

Extended Conjugation/Suffixing Rule

Whenever you conjugate a verb into its respective potential form, the potential form verb can be further conjugated and suffixed and it follows group two る verb conjugation rules:

働ける (hatarakeru) - (can work) - 働けなかった (hatarakenakatta) - (could not work)

遊べる (asoberu) - (can play) - 遊べれば (asobereba) - (literal - 'if can play')

食べられる (taberareru) - (can eat) - 食べられて (taberarete) - (can eat - て form)

Example Sentences

私の自転車を直せますか?(watashi no jitensya wo naosemasu ka) - (Can you fix my bicycle?)

漢字を読めなければその文書を分れません。(kanji wo yomenakereba sono bunsyo wo wakaremasen) - (If you cannot read kanji, you will not be able to understand that document.)


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