How can you distinguish two verbs when the dictionary form of one is exactly the same as the "potential" form of another. E.g:

  • 開く  [Godan verb with ku ending, intransitive verb] (Potential form: 開ける)

  • 開ける [Ichidan verb, Transitive verb] (Potential form: 開けられる)

As I understand it, both are related to opening something so they'd be used in similar contexts, & both in "masu" form (with 開く firstly put into potential form) would be "開けます". In this case 開ける is transitive & 開く intransitive, so they'd differ by を or が respectively when used in a sentence; however, I can imagine that this isn't always the case.

Would you be able to consistently tell the difference by particle used? Is this just a case where it comes down to context / homonyms? Or am I fundamentally misunderstanding something?

Edit 1: Didn't realise that the kanji I picked actually related to two different sets of words where the above applies;「あく」&「あける」as well as「ひらく」&「ひらける」. I'm getting the feeling, looking at some of these cases, that it'll just be contextual + memorisation, and sometimes it could actually just be both & it's up to the speaker / listener to clarify; if anyone has tips though, I'd be happy to hear them.

Edit 2: Just came across: Potential form vs Intransitive Verbs, but I don't feel like the answer really squares. The example I gave seems to line up with the example the asker there gave, except「あける」is both the potential form of「あく」, and also an intransitive verb. Conversely, both「ひらける」and「ひらく」can be intransitive (according to the dictionary I'm looking at).

  • Just to clarify, are you only talking about あく and あける? The verbs ひらく and ひらける can also be written using identical kanji, but would have slightly different usages. Or was differentiating between あく and ひらく, for instance, also something you were curious about.
    – Leebo
    Jul 25, 2019 at 1:41
  • Hi @Leebo, I'm still working to build up a solid understanding of Japanese, so I'm curious for anyone's take on just about anything, lol. I didn't even notice that ひらく used the same kanji as あく & had the same complication with potential form. I figured that for kanji with varying pronunciation that it'd just be a matter of memorization & context, but if you've got additional tips there, I'd be glad to hear them. Jul 25, 2019 at 5:36
  • About your Edit 2 note, the examples don't line up due to the transitivity relationship of きる and きれる being the inverse of あく and あける
    – Leebo
    Jul 25, 2019 at 6:41
  • Ah, I see. So when the answerer says, "Verbs like 切れる can have two meanings, the potential one or the intransitive one" he just means that it can literally be (a) The direct intransitive meaning from 切れる OR (b) the potential meaning from 切る, yes? Sorry, I mistook the meaning there. I thought he was saying that「verb+れる」somehow indicated that it would be intransitive. Jul 25, 2019 at 12:31

1 Answer 1


Would you be able to consistently tell the difference by particle used?

The short answer is no. Sometimes it is impossible to tell the correct reading without thinking of the context. 開く/開ける is exceptionally complex, but there are some other confusing kanji which has more than one kun-reading, for example, 辛い(からい・つらい), 汚れる(よごれる・けがれる), 怒る(おこる・いかる), 弾く(ひく・はじく) and 被る(かぶる・こうむる). You have to learn the appropriate reading from examples.

Here is the list of potential readings and meanings of 開く/開ける.


  • あく (intransitive) to open


  • ひらく (intransitive) to open; (transitive) to open something



  • あける (transitive) to open something


  • ひらける (potential-form of transitive ひらく) can open something


  • ひらける (intransitive) to spread out; to become clear/vast


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