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When we start to learn Japanese we are told that が marks the 'object' in sentences with the potential form. We expect 私は日本語話せる but are told it should be 私は日本語話せる. It is sometimes justified by translating as "to me Japanese is speakable" thus retaining Japanese as the subject.

Later on we find that を can actually mark the 'object' and that 私は日本語話せる is actually fine. I must admit I still don't have a good grasp of this.

In this question I proposed the sentence 教授はハリーひとり占めできなかった with the intended meaning of "the professor was unable to monopolise Harry" but was told that this had the opposite meaning of "Harry was unable to monopolise the professor". The sentence should actually be 教授はハリーひとり占めできなかった.

My question is, why? Why can I not think of 教授はハリーがひとり占めできなかった as "Harry was not monopolisable to the professor" in the same way as "Japanese is not speakable for me"?

I'm further confused because "A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar", when discussing を versus が for potential forms, explicitly states on page 371 that "Dekiru 'can do', however, always requires the object of an action to be marked by ga".

I think I must be missing something pretty basic here.

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  • I find it a bit hard to answer the question fully, but 教授はハリーが・・ is (at least) ok. In the linked question, you say 教授. Then using が for object marker is out of question (教授がハリーが is extremely awkward).
    – sundowner
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 10:49
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    Isn’t the book talking about cases where できる is used as a standalone verb, rather than part of [N]-する?
    – aguijonazo
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 15:06

2 Answers 2

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It depends on the verb. In this case, the noun portion of the する-verb 独り占め contains another verb, 占める. I think this is making us feel ハリーが or ハリーを is more strongly associated with the action of that verb than with できる.

教授はハリーが独占できなかった sounds slightly less bad because we don’t feel as much verb (at least not in form) from 独占 as from 独り占め.


And ハリー being a person obviously increases the probability of it being a subject when marked with が.

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"but was told that this had the opposite meaning of "Harry was unable to monopolise the professor". The sentence should actually be 教授はハリーをひとり占めできなかった."

This is correct because this sentence is not using potential form. Although dekiru is commonly used to explain when things "can" happen, it is still using regular old present tense, so the direct object must be marked with を as with any sentence in present form.

The source that told you が marks objects in potential form is wrong. が always marks the subject. Look at the two sentences below:

Food can be eaten by me. Subject (が) = "Food"; No direct object. Agent = "me".

I can eat food. Subject (が) = "I"; Direct object (を) = "food"

These are different, but English translators of Japanese will use both interchangeably, leading to the myth that the rules for が and を are arbitrary and mysterious, and that for this verb tense the particles can change their roles, when in reality the existence of one or the other particle indicates which of the two above sentences the Japanese person meant, if they're there at all.

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  • What about 猫が好き?
    – a20
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 7:57
  • Appreciate your answer but I don't think it is a simple as you claim. Either I've misunderstood or do not agree with your comment: "Although dekiru is commonly used to explain when things "can" happen, it is still using regular old present tense, so the direct object must be marked with を as with any sentence in present form". To the best of my knowledge 英語ができる and 英語が勉強できる are perfectly grammatical sentences and を is not mandated. Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 19:17
  • What about 猫が好き? - This means "Cats are liked (by me)" 英語ができる and 英語が勉強できる mean "English can be done (by whoever)" and "English can be studied (by whoever)" respectively. In Japanese, the potential form and the passive form are very closely linked. This is why "-rareru" at the end of "-ru" verbs is used for both the passive and potential conjugations. Dekiru doesn't mean "can do", it means "can be done". This is why the thing that can be done must be marked with が, because it is the subject of the sentence, not an object.
    – FujiSan
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 21:18

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