For verbs of group 2, whose ~ます form is formed by dropping the ending ~る from the plain form, both the passive and potential forms have the same conjugation: ~られる. Example:

1. to be eaten
2. can eat / edible

Other than looking at the context, how do I differentiate between the two meanings?

  • I did not know the terminology “verb of class 1/2/3,” but judging from several webpages, I think that you are talking about verbs of class 2. – Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 6 '11 at 4:13
  • Yes. This only applies for "group 2" verbs or "ichidan verbs". (The verbs which usually end in える or いる.) Group 2: 食べられる (Potential) vs 食べられる (Passive). Group 1 (These are easy to separate): 使える - Potential vs 使われる - Passive – phirru Jun 6 '11 at 10:33
  • 3
    There is a way to contrast it if you are speaking with a casual Tokyo-dialect person! In casual speech, there is a form 食べれる that unambiguously means the potential, and never means the passive, which is always 食べられる. It such a shame it didn't make it into 標準語... – ithisa Jan 6 '14 at 0:23

I don't think you can differentiate them without looking at the context.

  • ハンバーガー が・を 食べられる → I can eat hamburgers

  • ハンバーガーを食べられてしまった! → Someone ate my hamburger!!

With the passive form, you'll usually see the doer/"culprit", indicated by ~に/~によって (there are some rules about which to use, but that's beyond the scope of this topic):

  • 父にハンバーガーを食べられることが多い → My hamburgers are often eaten by my father ("My father often eats my hamburgers")
  • 「モナ・リザ」はダ・ヴィンチによって描かれた → The "Mona Lisa" was painted by DaVinci.

Don't forget that there is a third conjugation of this form that is a type of keigo (somewhat between normal politeness and super politeness)

  • 課長は明日会議に行かれる → The section chief is going to the meeting tomorrow.
  • From your examples, I got the impression that potential form is always in present tense (食べられる) while passive form can be present tense, past tense (食べられた), continuous tense (食べられている / 食べられていた). Can I rely on this to decide on whether it's potential or passive? – Lukman Jun 7 '11 at 5:38
  • No, they were just that: examples. Of course the verbs could take on any tense (theoretically). I think context is still the only way to tell them. – istrasci Jun 7 '11 at 14:20

I don't think there is way to decide that without looking at context.

And there is another meaning for ~られる, which is used as polite form (keigo), which means 食べられる can be used as similar meaning with 召し上がる (meshiagaru), but of course special usage 召し上がる is more polite than 食べられる for this case.

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