How to Use こと in Japanese | 4 Different Uses of This Japanese Word

Posted by on November 9, 2020 – Japanese Study
how to use こと in Japanese

Do you know how to use the Japanese word こと (koto)?  Maybe you have seen the word used in a textbook for the JLPT – or you may have heard it used in a Japanese conversation.  Let’s learn how to use こと in Japanese!

Actually, the word こと has several different uses in both Japanese speaking and writing.  In this article, we are going to look at 4 of them, and include videos explaining how to use them when preparing for the JLPT.  Are you studying for the JLPT?

There are 4 different uses of the Japanese word こと that we will examine in this article, which correspond to JLPT Grammar levels N4 and N3.

How to use こと contents:

How to Use こと: JLPT N3 こと – “I Must Do~”

This is one of the four ways in which you can use こと that we discuss in this article.  As Nami-sensei explains in the video above, this particular use of the Japanese word こと means “I must do~”.

This is a JLPT N3 level grammar point.  It is often used in a commanding or authoritative voice.  In other words, it should not be used when speaking to strangers, bosses, or anyone “above” you in the Japanese social hierarchy.

こと also nominalizes verbs.  Here’s how to use it in a sentence:

Verb (short form) + こと

Verb (short form negative) + こと

Example 1:

Shukudai wa ashita made ni kanarazu dasu koto!
The homework must be submitted by tomorrow!

In the context of the example above, the teacher is giving an assignment to the students: “The homework must be done by tomorrow”.  In this example, this is being given as a clear instruction.

Example 2:

Hanasanai koto!
Don’t talk!

Example 2 is much more direct than the first.  As this is more of a scolding voice, it can sound sound rude if you aren’t using it with someone younger than your (suboordinate, underclassman, student, etc).  This sentence is a very clear command.

As previously stated, this use of こと is a way to nominalize verbs.  That being said, there are many other ways to use こと.

Let’s look at another use of こと for nominalizing verbs!

How to Use こと: JLPT N4 ことができる – “I Can Do~”


This JLPT N4 grammar point is ことができる (koto ga dekiru) – meaning “I can do~”.  The use of this grammar point is similar to that of potential form verbs.

The difference, however, is that the grammar point ことができる is more formal and polite than the potential form verbs.  Nami sensei explains this in the video above!

To use it in a sentence, the structure is as follows:

V (short form) + ことが/は + できる/できます

Example 1:

Watashi wa, sukoshi supein go o hanasu koto ga dekimasu.
I am able to speak a little bit of Spanish.

In this example we can see the use of 話すことができます is used instead of simply 話せます, which is the potential verb form of 話す.  However, this phrase is slightly more polite (丁寧), which means that you can use this JLPT N4 grammar when speaking about something that you can do with someone who is older than you, or a boss or supervisor at work.

Example 2:

Nihongo de eiga o miru koto ga dekimasu.
(I/you) can watch movies in Japanese.

Depending on the context, this grammar point can be used to talk about yourself, or someone else!

And, it’s just as polite to use it for you or someone else – it is neither 尊敬語 nor 謙譲語.  In other words, neither humble form nor honorific form.

One nice thing about this grammar point is, if your ever forget a verb’s potential form conjugation – you can merely opt instead to ことができます on the spot!

JLPT N4 ことがある – “There Are Times When~”

Grammatically, the structure of this JLPT N4 grammar point resembles the previous one.  However, the actual meaning is completely different.

Specifically, this is used either when something occurs sometimes, or to describe something that you do sometimes.  Do not use this grammar point to describe something that occurs frequently, or something that you do often.  It implies a certain degree of scarcity.

The structure is:

V (short form) + ことは/が + できる/できます

Example 1:

Jitensha de iku koto ga arimasu.
There are times when I go by bicycle.

This example is straightforward. In the context of the above video, Nami-sensei is clearly stating that most of the time she goes to work by train.  However there are some instances where she rides a bicycle, which is why she uses ことがある.

Let’s look at another example.

Example 2:

Kono jiki wa kyuu ni ame ga furu koto ga arukara, heya boshi ni shiyou.
In this time of year, it sometimes rains without notice, so I’ll dry (the laundry) in my room.

In this other example from Nami-sensei’s video, she is talking about hanging her laundry and she describes the current season this way.  Even though it may not rain all the time, there are times where it rains suddenly without notice.  So she put her laundry in her room to dry.


JLPT N3 ことになっている – “It is Expected/Decided That~”

This JLPT N3 Grammar point is a bit more nuanced use of the word こと.  The translation can vary between something being expected, something being “decided” (like an unspoken rule), or something being scheduled.

It often points to an external locus of authority, which is very “Japanese” in nature.  This indicates that the deciding variable is not something that the speaker has control over – very passive in nature.

As with the other grammar points, to structure this grammar point in a sentence, utilize the plain form.

V (short form or short form negative + ことになっている/なっています

Example 1:

Tokyo e shucchou ni iku koto ni nateimasu.
I am going on a business trip to Tokyo.

In this example from the above video, Nami-sensei is politely stating that she already has a business trip to Tokyo scheduled.  This is a polite way of declining the lunch invitation.  She is ambiguous about whether she scheduled the business trip herself, or if it was scheduled for her by someone else.

Example 2:

Keitai denwa o tsukatte wa ikenai koto ni natteimasu.
There is a rule that you cannot use your cellphone.

This is a more direct sentence that uses ことになっている.  While it still points to an external locus of authority, this usage is very straightforward.  There is a rule in place, and it is to be followed.

Can you think of other uses of the word こと?  Let us know on Twitter, our Youtube channel, or Instagram!

Looking for Japanese Private Lessons in Tokyo or Yokohama?

Are you interested in Japanese Private Lessons?  We have Private Japanese lessons in Tokyo, Yokohama, as well as Online!

Get in touch with us to schedule a free level check and consultation interview → contact