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When using the potential form of a verb, I was taught that the particle を becomes が. However, in real life this seems to not always be the case. I've even heard Japanese people use を instead of が quite often.

What's the difference between the following two sentences? Is を actually grammatically correct?

ここで切符が買えますか?

ここで切符を買えますか?

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possible duplicate of What's the difference and the correct usage of wa (は) and ga (が)? –  repecmps Jun 5 '11 at 4:13
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No, this is a different question. –  Amanda S Jun 5 '11 at 4:22
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I disagree with this being a duplicate. That focuses on the subject and topic particles in general, whilst this is focusing on two particles, they are not the same and are in a focused context. –  phirru Jun 5 '11 at 4:27
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I was taught the same thing (を --> が before potential) so I'm wondering about this too. +1 –  Lukman Jun 5 '11 at 4:43
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As a child, I was shocked to find a book (in Japanese) on Japanese grammar which claimed that using が with a potential form was a common mistake. I learned from the book not to believe what a book says without thinking. :) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 5 '11 at 16:15

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

In the が + potential construction, the focus is on the noun.

新聞が読める (what I am able to read is newspapers [as opposed to other written media])

ここで切符が買えますか (is this where tickets [as opposed to other items for sale] can be bought?)

In the を + potential construction, the focus is on the entire phrase.

新聞を読める (what I am able to do is read newspapers)

ここで切符を買えますか (is this where I am able to buy tickets [as opposed to doing some other action]?)

を + potential is not yet considered standard, but has begun to gain acceptance among some speakers.

(Paraphrased from Japanese: The Spoken Language)

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+1 for noting that wo + potential form is not grammatically correct. –  Mark Hosang Jun 5 '11 at 6:24
    
since を is not considered standard, is it true that if someone uses が, there may be no intention at all in focusing on the noun? –  Pacerier Aug 12 '11 at 17:23
    
@Pacerier, they could also use ~ことができる if they wanted the emphasis on the phrase instead of the noun. –  Muhd Nov 3 '11 at 2:06

A well known difference (noticed by Tada 1992) is the scope of the quantifiers in relevant positions.

田中は小指だけを曲げられる
'It is possible for Tanaka to bend only the pinky finger without bending the other fingers.'
'It is only the pinky finger that Tanaka can bend.' (Marginal)

田中は小指だけが曲げられる
'It is only the pinky finger that Tanaka can bend.'

夕食には二人だけを招待出来る
'It is possible to exclusively invite two people to dinner without companions.'
'There are only two people that I can invite to the dinner.' (Marginal)

夕食には二人だけが招待出来る
'There are only two people that I can invite to the dinner.'

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