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?

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    Hmm I think you should guess by the context... – user1016 Aug 27 '12 at 14:18
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    @Chocolate I think this should be an answer. There really is no way to tell other than by context – rurouniwallace Aug 27 '12 at 15:44
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    This is a great question! See this question: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/649/… – silvermaple Aug 27 '12 at 16:00

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! – How to Japanese Aug 27 '12 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." – rurouniwallace Aug 27 '12 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 Aug 27 '12 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 Aug 28 '12 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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