How to Say “I Can” or “Cannot” in Japanese – Expressing Ability to Do Something

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How to Express Ability to do Something in Japanese

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

(Verb + koto ga dekimasu)
“can do (something)….

Japanese Sentence Pattern, image, photo, picture, illustration

Japanese Sentence Pattern



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 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

Watashi wa furansugoohanasukoto ga dekimasu
I can speak French.

Suzukisan wa hashirukoto ga dekimasen
Suzuki cannot run.

Asking & Answering to a Question With できる

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:

Kimusan wa bentou o tsukurukoto ga dekimasuka
Kim, can you make bentos?

Hai, dekimasu
Yes, I can.

Pengin wa tobukuto ga dekimasuk
Can penguins fly?

Iie, Dekimasen
No, they can’t.

Using Potential Japanese 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
Japanese Potential Verbs, image, photo, picture, illustration

Japanese Potential Verbs

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.

Resutoran de oishiiryouri ga taberaremasu
You can have delicious food at a restaurant.

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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