I've read that potential form of the ru-verb is formed by replacing る with られる, which is exactly the same for the passive form of ru-verbs. How can we tell the passive form and potential apart in this case?


2 Answers 2


Context is important. With passive verbs you should look for a に before the verb that will mark the person or thing that performs the verb. This is not the same as the subject of the verb.

For example, if you see the short phrase: お兄さんに食べられた。 You can figure out pretty quickly from the に that this is not the potential. The subject of the sentence is an invisible first person pronoun (pick your poison: 私, 僕, 俺). The object is also invisible - let's make it an おにぎり. So the actual sentence looks like this (私が)お兄さんに(おにぎりを)食べられた。In other words: I suffered my older brother eating an onigiri. The に marks the person who performs the actual action, the が marks the subject who suffers, and the を marks the object. Put that into normal English and you get: My brother ate my damn onigiri.

I wrote a basic introduction to the passive form here: http://howtojaponese.com/2008/02/04/embracing-japanese-expression-get-used-to-it-2/

And then expanded on it in a Japan Times article which I link to here: http://howtojaponese.com/2011/04/27/cool-passive-phrase-yarareta/

And never forget that there's no such thing as passive "tense." That's what I used to call it until someone pointed out that tense always means time-related...past, present, future.

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    The real thing to realize is that after you study long enough, after you read enough books and talk to enough people, you'll understand from the meaning. You'll start to expect the passive instead of the potential and this won't even be an issue. I promise! Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 17:02
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    I had no idea you could have a direct object in a passive sentence. You can imagine my confusion when I read your answer, and thought it said "I was eaten by my brother." Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 17:23
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    Maybe worth noting that in conversation the potential form for る verbs is mostly shortened from 食べられる to 食べれる。
    – Jeemusu
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 23:30
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    thanks a lot for the explanation. I think that besides に-ni particle we can also keep an eye on が-ga and を-wo positions in a sentence.
    – minerals
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 12:30

Yes, ditto what How to Japanese said, context is king.

  • お兄さん食べられる
    [something] is eaten by elder brother
  • お兄さん食べられる
    elder brother is eaten [by something]
    OR elder brother can eat [something]

And, as Jeemusu notes, -られる is often turned into -れる in speech and more casual writing, precisely to help clarify this difference.

About tense, @How to Japanese, some folks even take the angle that Japanese doesn't have tense, strictly speaking -- what Japanese uses is something called "aspect", regarding whether the verb action is complete or not within the timeframe of the utterance, which is why it's possible to say things like 明日あれをした後で [tomorrow, after I did that] or 昨日起きるところで [yesterday, just before I wake up]. It's a subtle distinction, but aspect has more to do with when an action happens within the flow of the context, whereas tense has more to do with when an action happens in relation to now. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_aspect and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_tense.

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