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?



  • 3
    I was taught the same thing (を --> が before potential) so I'm wondering about this too. +1
    – Lukman
    Commented Jun 5, 2011 at 4:43
  • 14
    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. :) Commented Jun 5, 2011 at 16:15

3 Answers 3


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)

  • 5
    +1 for noting that wo + potential form is not grammatically correct. Commented Jun 5, 2011 at 6:24
  • 1
    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
    Commented Aug 12, 2011 at 17:23
  • 1
    @Pacerier, they could also use ~ことができる if they wanted the emphasis on the phrase instead of the noun.
    – Muhd
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 2:06
  • 1
    I learned that this was not standard as well, but Makino and Tsutsui give examples using it in A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar and don't mention anything about it being incorrect. In fact, they even give examples that they say feel awkward with が instead of を. (私はやめようと思えばいつでも今の仕事をやめられる。 and 僕はやっとの思いで自分のことをおさえられた。) I'm wondering if anyone can post more details from a resource that says it's wrong. Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 0:13
  • 1
    It seems that the を construction would emphasize the action, more than the entire phrase. This would contrast with the が construction emphasizing the noun to which that action applies. Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 18:35

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.'


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)

  • Could we just say this is because -- in the が case -- 英語 is the subject (so that the sentence is "English is speakable"), while in the を case 阿部さん is the subject (so the sentence then bcomes "Abe can speak English"). Under this viewpoint, it makes sense why the を case would emphasis Mr. Abe's volition (since it forces him to be the subject of the sentence).
    – George
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 3:10
  • 1
    I'm not sure this distinction is clear since the phrase 'English is speakable" is not natural. I understand what you are trying to say, but it's not easy to express the difference in English.
    – kandyman
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 7:16
  • 1
    Couldn't we say many (even most?) Japanese sentences, when translated literally into English, are not very natural sounding to English natives? Under this viewpoint, "English is speakable (for Mr. Abe)" is not an idiomatic thing to say in English. We would want to smooth this over into "Mr. Abe can speak English". Nevertheless, do you think it's still fair to say that "As for Mr. Abe, English speakable (for him)" is a more correct way to (literally) translate 阿部さんは英語が話せます into English? If so, it would allow us to preserve the idea that が always marks the subject of a sentence.
    – George
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 16:56
  • 1
    What can I say? If this helps you to understand the grammatical distinction, then by all means use it. For me personally, it is not helpful to compare Japanese structures to artificial and unnatural phrases in English. I try to learn the distinctions more intuitively by examining Japanese sentences in context and by trying to see the subtle semantic differences. However, I understand that this approach you suggest could be helpful in cases where the distinction is very subtle, as with this example.
    – kandyman
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 14:19

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