372 - ことができる

One thing you have to learn to pass N4 is the dreaded potential form of verbs.

I say dreaded because conjugating verbs with ~られる on the end can be a bit of a nightmare for beginner students.

Good news, though: We're not studying that in this lesson.

Instead, we're studying what I like to think of as the easier potential form.

JLPT N4: ~ことができる (can; be able to)

You know する, right?

Though it has a billion uses, the simplest translation of this verb is "to do."

But do you know the potential form of this verb? That is, do you know how to say "can do?"

Hint: It's an irregular verb. So having studied the potential forms of verbs wouldn't really help you much for this one.

It's... できる!

Sometimes this is written with kanji: 出来る. But you can feel free to just use hiragana when writing it, which is what a lot of people do.

Here's a random assortment of conjugations to refresh your memory of verbs:

Dictionary Form / Plain Present Form
する(to do
できる(to be able to do

して(do [and])
できて(can do [and]

Plain Past Form
できた(could do; was able to do

できます(can do

できました(could do; was able to do

しません(don't do
できません(cannot do

しませんでした(didn't do
できませんでした(couldn't do

OK. Grammar time.

Let's say we have a verb or verb phrase, like one of these:

買う(かう // to buy
会話をする(かいわをする // to have a conversation
使う(つかう // to use
起き上がる(おきあがる // to get up; to stand up
聞き取る(ききとる // to catch what someone's saying; to understand what someone's saying
話す(はなす // to speak

If we want to say "can VERB" for any of those verbs, all we have to do is snap ~ことができる onto the end.

V + ことができる

Specifically, in this lesson we'll see:

かう こと が できます
can buy

かいわ を する こと が できます
can have a conversation

Then I'll throw you for a loop when I point out that, depending on the sentence, we can also use は instead of が before our final verb. Getting the hang of this will take time, so I wouldn't fret too much about choosing the right particle on your own at this stage:

つかう こと は できません
cannot use

ききとる こと は できます
can understand what someone says

はなす こと は できません
cannot speak

In fact, we can even use other particles for added nuances. In the following phrase, も adds the nuance of "even:"

おきあがる こと も できない
can't even stand up

Once you feel totally confident that you can attach ~ことができる, then you can worry about how, in actuality, this phrase can come after nouns, too--if, and only if, those nouns can attach to する or describe something that works with phrases of ability, like "can sports" or "can Japanese."


ハイハイ([baby] crawling
お座り(おすわり // sitting*
テスト勉強(テストべんきょう // studying for a test
返品(へんぴん // returning goods

*Note: I doubt you'll find yourself saying お座り (おすわり // sitting) very often. Also, instead of learning this word as a standalone noun, I'd remember it as a noun form of the verb 座る (すわる // to sit).


N + + できる

Note #1: Like with verbs above, the particle will not always be が, but there will often be a particle.
Note #2: Don't add こと with nouns, since こと is also a noun!

ハイハイ も おすわり も できます
can crawl and can sit up

テストべんきょう が できませんでした
could not study for a test

へんぴん は できません
cannot return

Now, you might be feeling exhausted with all of these words and phrases, but bear with me!

If you've read carefully through the first parts of this lesson, you already understand huge chunks of our example sentences...

いま は、 なんでも インターネット で かう こと が できます。
Nowadays, you can buy anything on the internet.
Literally: "now + は + anything + internet + で + buy + こと + が + can do."

わたし は だれ と でも たのしく かいわ を する ことができます。
I can enjoy having conversations with anyone.
Literally: "I + は + with anyone (=who + と + でも) + enjoyably + conversation + を + do + こと + が + can do."

むすこ は もうすぐ じゅっかげつ に なります。 ハイハイ も おすわり も できます。
My son will be ten months old soon. He can now crawl and sit up.
Literally: "son + は + soon + ten months (period) + に + become. + (baby) crawling + も + sitting + も + can do."

Note that our "can VERB" actions are not restricted to phrases describing ability to perform a task. We can also use this verb form to describe rules. This isn't all that different from English, so maybe it doesn't need to be explained, but yeah, here's an example...

かんけいしゃ いがい は、 この いりぐち を つかう ことはできません。
This entrance is reserved for authorized personnel only. // With the exception of concerned personnel, this entrance cannot be used.
Literally: "concerned persons + other than + は, + this + entrance + を + use + こと + は + cannot do."
Note: The second translation is more literal.

Presumably the person reading or hearing this sentence is physically capable of using the entrance. They're just not allowed to use it.

きのう は つかれていて テストべんきょう が できませんでした が、 きょう は できる と おもいます。
I was so tired yesterday that I couldn't study for my test, but I think I can today.
Literally: "yesterday + は + am tired (and) + studying for a test (=test + studies) + が + could not do + が, + today + は + can do + と + (I) think."

ギフトカード の へんぴん は できません。
Gift cards cannot be returned.
Literally: "gift card + の + returning + は + cannot do."

あたま が いたくて、 おきあがる こともできない。
My head hurts so bad, I can't even stand up.
Literally: "head + が + painful (and), + get up / rise to one's feet + こと + も + cannot do."

かれ は にほんご を ききとる こと だけ は できます が、 はなす こと は ほとんど できません。
He can only understand Japanese; he can hardly speak it at all.
Literally: "he + は + Japanese + を + catch (someone's) words / understand what (someone) says + こと + only + can do + が, + speak + こと + は + hardly / mostly + cannot do."

しゅじゅつ の あと しばらく は、 はげしい うんどう を したり、 しゃわー を あびたり する ことはできません。
For a while after the surgery, you won't be able to do things like exercise (intensely) or take showers.
Literally: "surgery + の + after + for a while + は, + intense / violent + exercise + を + (things like) doing, + shower + を + (things like) showering + do + こと + は + cannot do."

OK. We're finished!

Sorry this lesson was a bit long, but this is a pretty important grammar point.

Oh and last thing: I should have mentioned that ~ことができる tends to sound more formal than ~られる (the other potential form), but this is not always the case, and they are more or less interchangeable.

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