Is there a good etymological reason why the potential form in Japanese requires the が particle?

When dealing with the -たい suffix, which also requires the -が particle for what in other languages would be its object, I always conceptualised the word before -が acting as the subject of a "passive desiderative". This might actually historically be wrong (I am not sure), but it made it seem much more logical in my head.

So 私は寿司が食べたい then translates conceptually into "as for me, sushi is desired to be eaten", or changing the form into an adjective (which the -たい form kind of is): "as for me, sushi is desirable for eating". Thus "sushi" becomes the actual subject of the sentence, and the が particle becomes logical.

Now I am looking to see if it is possible to find a similar explanation for the reason why the が particle is used for the potential form… I can of course simply see the potential as a passive (quite logical, as the forms are identical for -いる/える verbs anyway), but that leaves me with a different meaning (e.g. "as for me, Japanese is written", rather than "I can write Japanese"). This would only make sense if the potential meaning directly derives from an earlier passive meaning, which I am not sure of.

  • If I had to guess I would say that it is for the same reason why が is used in V-こと出来ます. After all the potential form has basically the same meaning.
    – Tommy
    Jul 13, 2018 at 3:24
  • Just a note, が is not required for the potential form. You can say 日本語を話せる or 日本語が話せる. The flow of the sentence might shape which one feels better (for instance if が was already used once).
    – Leebo
    Jul 13, 2018 at 3:56
  • See also this other post about the development of the 可能動詞【かのうどうし】 ("potential verb") forms of transitive verbs -- basically, transitive verbs were transformed into intransitives describing the nouns that are usually the objects of the transitive versions. As descriptive intransitive verbs, the used-to-be-objects become subjects instead -- which requires が instead of を. Dec 21, 2021 at 23:20
  • This distinction (between transitive "active" verbs and intransitive "descriptive" verbs, for these specific pairs of transitive + potential) has become less important in modern Japanese, and I've read speculation that there might be some influence from English as well, giving rise to the [NOUN][を]{●}[POTENTIAL VERB] construction in current usage. Dec 21, 2021 at 23:25

1 Answer 1


I'll divide my answer in two parts.

Part 1: The connection with V-ことが出来ます and the tendency of using を

As I mentioned in the comment, I think there is a relationship between the が used in the potential form and the construction V-ことが出来ます.

Let's consider the example: 地図が読める / 地図を読むことができる.

Basically in Japanese we can distinguish these two cases:

  1. [Subj]は[Obj]が[State predicate (状態述語)]
  2. [Subj]が[Obj]を~することができる/~することができない

The state predicate is a predicate that expresses the object being in a certain status, and 1. in general indicates that the subject has the ability or desire of doing something.

In our example 読める/読みたい are state predicates (状態述語) and we can use が:

「私は地図が読める(expresses the condition of having the ability of)」

「私は地図が読みたい(expresses the condition of desiring)」

These are both correct.

In the second case, the sentence would be 私は地図を読むことができる. It happens often that the V-ことが出来ます part is changed into the potential form, which turns the sentence into 私は地図読める. I think this is commonly used and accepted by native speakers as well, especially in spoken Japanese. However, I believe the most grammatically correct version would be with .

A discussion around this subject can be also found at this link.

Second part: why が is used.

I think the discussion here pretty much answers your question. Let me just cut and paste the most relevant part:

Potential verbs are formed like 話【はな】す → 話【はな】せる, and so-called "passive verbs" and "spontaneous verbs" are formed via the same pattern. These other verb [types] are not formed quite as regularly as the potential, which has almost no exceptions, so these are listed as headwords as derived verbs in other dictionaries.

[Translator's note: ≒ as used below means "is roughly equivalent to".]

「謎【なぞ】を解【と】く "solve a riddle"」 →「謎【なぞ】が解【と】ける "a riddle can be solved"」≒「謎【なぞ】が解【と】かれる "a riddle is solved"」 (passive)  

「気【き】を置【お】く "set down / aside one's attention / interest" (used idiomatically to mean "to be respectful of someone else's intent; to be relieved"」→「気【き】が置【お】ける "one's interest can be set down / side"」≒「気【き】が置【お】かれる "one's interest is set down / aside"」 (spontaneous)

The derivation process for potential verbs is the same as these. Consequently, the original tendency has been for potential verbs to not take the を object case.

  • Ok, so I had a look again and I did my utmost to understand what is says, with a dictionary. Am I right in concluding that essentially -を is incorrect because the potential is etymologically derived from the Passive?
    – Pregunto
    Jul 13, 2018 at 9:54
  • を is not incorrect though...
    – Leebo
    Jul 13, 2018 at 10:03
  • Okay, I see what you're saying if you mean it's nonstandard, as mentioned in this answer. But it seems like it's very widespread. japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/609/…
    – Leebo
    Jul 13, 2018 at 10:15
  • @Pregunto That problem seems unexpectedly complicated. It seems to have progressed as を → の/が → が → が/を (with occasional zero particle for each). I have no evidence myself, though. In addition, "derived from passive" is not necessarily wrong (not really correct either) but it's still different from that in English sense.
    – user4092
    Aug 12, 2018 at 8:01
  • I found one example. あの国の人を、え戦はぬなり。弓矢して射られじ from 竹取物語. As a matter of fact, the potential usage started with negation, which semantically corresponds with negation of 自発 rather than passive.
    – user4092
    Aug 12, 2018 at 8:51

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