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?



  • 2
    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
  • 11
    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

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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  • 3
    +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.

'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)

'It is only the pinky finger that Tanaka can bend.'

'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)

'There are only two people that I can invite to the dinner.'

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According to Hamano and Tsujioka (2011), the difference between を and が with the potential form is that を has a slightly stronger sense of volition than が does. They give the examples

A: 阿部さんは英語話せます。
B: 阿部さんは英語話せます。
and they translate both sentences as "Mr. Abe can speak English".

According to their definition, sentence A has a stronger sense of Mr. Abe's volition when speaking, giving it a sense of a more deliberate action. On the other hand, sentence B would have a stronger nuance of a natural ability with less volition than sentence A.

(Basic Japanese: A Grammar and Workbook)

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