How to express ability in Japanese – How to say “I Can” or “Cannot” do something

Posted by on July 17, 2019 – Japanese Study

When expressing something that you can or cannot do in Japanese, you may use the following pattern:

V+ことができます
(Verb + koto ga dekimasu)
“can do (something)….

V+こと

The first part of the sentence V+こと indicates the action.  If the action is an intransitive verb such as 泳(およ)ぐ (oyogu swim), add “こと” to the back of its plain form to nominalize the action.
E.g. 泳ぐこと

If the action is a transitive verb, you have to add noun + を before the verb to make it a complete clause.
E.g. 絵(え)を描(か)く(e o kaku).
Remember to also add the ことat the back to nominalize the action

The particle “が ” acts as a subtopic marker in the sentence. In this case, the subtopic is the nominalized action V+こと. Click here to learn more about this paticle

できます

できます is a verb itself. Its plain form is “できる”. It can be directly translated to the English word “can”. To express something that cannot be done, simply change できます to its negative form: できません

Complete example sentence

私(わたし)はフランス語(ご)を話(はな)すことができます。
Watashi wa furansugoohanasukoto ga dekimasu
I can speak French.

鈴木(すずき)さんは走(hashiru)ることができません。
Suzukisan wa hashirukoto ga dekimasen
Suzuki cannot run.

 

Asking & answering to a question

When asking others whether he/she can do something, simply add “か” at the back of the sentence
When you are asked a can/cannot question, simple ways to answer are: はい、できます (Yes, I can) or いいえ、できません(No, I cannot)

 

Example sentences:

キムさんは弁当(べんとう)を作(つく)ることができますか。
Kimusan wa bentou o tsukurukoto ga dekimasuka
Kim, can you make bentos?

はい、できます。
Hai, dekimasu
Yes, I can.

 

ペンギンは飛(と)ぶことができますか。
Pengin wa tobukuto ga dekimasuk
Can penguins fly?

いいえ、できません。
Iie, Dekimasen
No, they can’t.

Using Potential Verbs

Another way to express can or cannot do something is by using potential verbs.

Potential Verb Transformation Rule

Group 1: Change the final vowel to the one on the “え column” of the same role then add “る” to the back.
Group 2: Remove “る” at the back and add “られる” (“ら” is sometimes omitted in oral Japanese)
Group 3: する ―できる 来るー来(こ)られる

 

Example Sentences

コンビニでATM が使(つか)えます.
Conbini dewa ATM ga tsukaemasu
ATM can be used at a convenience store.

 

レストランでおいしい料理(りょうり)が食(た)べられます.
Resutoran de oishiiryouri ga taberaremasu
You can have delicious food at a restaurant.

 

私(わたし)は家(いえ)で勉強(べんきょう)できません.
Watashi wa iede benkyoudekimasen
I can’t study at home.

Now that you have learned the 2 ways of expressing ability in  Japanese. What about asking the 5W1H questions in Japanese?

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