The Potential Form of Japanese Verbs: What the textbooks don’t tell you

Japanese potential form of verbsThe potential form of Japanese verbs is really not difficult.

However, some of the things that the textbooks teach about it actually undermine our understanding of Japanese.

So let’s watch this short video lesson to learn not only how the potential form works – but even more importantly, how it doesn’t work!

And as usual, when the Doll is around Japanese gets easier than you thought!

If you want more information, we always recommend looking at the comments section on YouTube because there are often discussions going into more detailed points.

For example, in this case AzwraithPL-san wrote:

Is the emphasis placed on the hearer even when the が(ga) subject is left out in「鳥を聞こえる」(tori wo kikoeru)? I know that including the subject would necessarily include emphasis as が(ga) directs focus to what it marks, but is the implication of a subject alone enough to direct that focus as well? If it does indeed emphasise the subject in the same fashion is it simply of a lesser degree than the inclusion?

And The Doll replied:

The simple answer is yes, even the implication of hearer-as-subject by the use of wo does direct attention to it.

The reasons that particular forms are used can vary and can be quite subtle so it is hard to make a rule about all cases, but the grammatical point is that

鳥が聞こえる
tori ga kikoeru

does not necessarily imply a particular hearer. All we are really saying is that a bird is audible. Of course if we add (or the context implies)

私は
watashi wa

specifying oneself (or anyone else) as a particular hearer, that changes it (though still does not carry a strong emphasis unless the wa is distinguishing the hearer from someone else).

But in this construction the ga-marked actor is the bird itself, and that is where the emphasis naturally lies (if you remember, in the advanced wa/ga lesson we said that ga throws the emphasis back onto the thing it marks – when we think about this construction we start to see that it is not just some “rule” but is built into the way the grammar works).

鳥が聞こえる
tori ga kikoeru

could, for example, simply be describing a scene: “There were mountains and trees and a bird was audible” – i.e., anyone who had been there would have heard a bird, but we are not saying that anyone in particular was hearing it. Conversely,

鳥を聞こえる
tori wo kikoeru

must imply a particular ga-marked hearer. A wo implies a corresponding ga.

To say

鳥を聞こえた
tori wo kikoeta

is like saying “a bird was heard by” (or better “xx heard a bird” since it isn’t passive). We immediately have to ask who heard the bird? Who is the owner of the ga that corresponds to the wo? In the English equivalent you can’t leave that part unstated (which is why I had to use xx just to express it actively in English), but in Japanese you can – however, the assumption is that your hearer will know it and fill it in mentally. The reasons for using the less common

鳥を
tori wo

formation can be various. Some Japanese people do not even accept it as correct Japanese. I have heard it said that it is especially used by younger people in the Tokyo area. In these cases it may be influenced by foreign usage and feel somewhat “trendy”. But those speakers aren’t the only ones who use it.

However, whatever the circumstance or motivation, a speaker who chooses 鳥を is purposely throwing grammatical weight onto the hearer as opposed to the bird.

Naturally, if you have questions of your own you can pop over to the comments section and ask them!

One thought on “The Potential Form of Japanese Verbs: What the textbooks don’t tell you

  1. キュアドリー先生,
    Noting @01:30 your excellent to,too,two point
    – a frightening number of today’s generation of English speakers DO seem to have trouble confusing homophones & possessives vs conjunctions (e.g. your vs you’re, its vs it’s).
    I can’t tell if that is a symptom of texting/tweeting behaviour, laziness, or poor education standards…
    The fewer characters we can use in our communication may seem convenient, but it is often a guaranteee of substandard contextless confusion.
    What can I say, let’s all do our best and be receptive, not ‘passive’.
    As for me, the book is readable 🙂

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