A couple of days ago I tried to express "I can ..." where "..." was some some verb or verb phrase.

I used the ~て form of the ... verb followed by 出来ます but was told instead to change the form of the ... verb from ~います to ~えます.

So now it seems to me that both 出来る and ~えます can have similar functions. What is the real difference and how can I know which to use when?

  • I'm such a beginner, even though I kind of know a few things, that it's really hard for me to spot duplicates. I didn't even know if the potential form tag really belonged here. By the way, I think I said "読んで出来ます" (I can read it). Feb 28, 2014 at 5:58
  • 4
    読んで出来ます is not grammatical (at least not in the sense "can read").
    – dainichi
    Feb 28, 2014 at 6:29
  • @dainichi: Is it that できる has to be used in combination with ことが? I've spotted this in constructions in this and the previous question but I never learned that so don't know how to understand it. Feb 28, 2014 at 9:23
  • @hippietrail ×読んで出来ます ○読むことが出来ます
    – Robin
    Feb 28, 2014 at 14:56
  • 1
    Why is everyone writng できる in kanji here?
    – user4032
    Mar 30, 2014 at 6:07

3 Answers 3


Short answer:

  1. 得{え}る or うる is more literary. ことができる is slightly more formal than られる and both fit for everyday use.

  2. ことができる and られる can only be used to describe humans' ability so they don't fit well with non-volitional verbs (無意志動詞). える or うる can also be used to describe possibility. E.g. ×あられる ○あり得る

  3. Both ことができる and られる can be used when you are not allowed to do something, you don't have enough knowledge or skills to do something, or you don't want to do something. But it seems that people tend to use ことができる when they are not physically unable.

  4. There are very rare cases that ことができる can occasionally be used with non-volitional. られる cannot.

I just realized your えます might refer to the -(r)eる potential form rather than 得ます{えます}.

  1. られる and -(r)eる are basically the same. But られる has more meanings than -eる, e.g. it can be used as a passive form.

  2. -(r)eる works for almost all types of verbs, while られる generally only works with 一段動詞.

  3. Although the meaning are the same, られる is longer than -(r)eる, which sometimes make it less favorable in certain situations. e.g.

     The number of results given by Google:
     230 開けようとしても開かない
     74  開けられない
     13  開けようとしても開けることができない
     67  声を出そうとしても出ない
     20  声を出そうとしても出せない
     3   声を出そうとしても出すことができない
     277 声が出ない
     255 声が出せない
     162 声を出すことができない

出来る is the potential form (〜えます form, if you will) of する. As such, in common usage the best practice is to use the native potential form for all non-する verbs and できる for the rest. Proper construction of the potential form is as follows:

  • Type I (〜う) verbs: Change -u to -eる (e.g. 行く => 行ける). This ending can also be further inflected (e.g. 行けます、行けない, etc.)
  • Type II (〜る) verbs: Change 〜る to 〜れる (e.g. 食べれる; informal) or 〜られる (e.g. 食べられる; formal. Also identical to the passive form).
  • Type III: 来る【くる】 becomes 来られる【こられる】. する, as noted above, becomes できる.

As far as I can tell, there is no real difference between the potential form (-える or -られる, depending on the verb) and することができる: they can be used interchangeably. That said, in normal conversation, you'll probably hear -える/-られる used more often, since it's much shorter.

Also, する itself has no potential form, so it can be replaced entirely by できる. Thus, phrases like バスケすることができる can be shortened to バスケできる.

  • 2
    「バスケをすることができる」 sounds more like you are permitted to play basketball at a certain place. To use it as potential sounds pretty wordy.
    – user4032
    Mar 30, 2014 at 6:42

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