Japanese · SLAP (Speak Like A Person) Exercises

SLAP#6 “Did you sleep well?” vs “Were you able to sleep well?”… how Japanese people actually use the られる potential form.

A big part of Sounding Like A Person is noticing differences between your base language and your target language. Last time we looked at how Japanese native speakers often use the passive voice when we wouldn’t. This time we’ll look at a similar phenomenon: how Japanese people use the potential form of a verb when we wouldn’t!

If you’ve ever stayed with any Japanese people, you may have heard one of the following:

Did (you) sleep well?

Were (you) able to sleep well?

よく = well (adverb form of よい, いい “good”) 寝【ね】る = to sleep

In case you don’t remember, 寝れる is the abbreviated/slang form of 寝られる, which in turn is the potential form of寝る (to sleep).
If you’re not familiar with this grammar, check out this explanation.

It seems that it’s equally common for Japanese people to ask “Did you sleep well?” or “Were you able to sleep well?” In English, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it the second way. A quick Google search reveals examples like “Were you able to sleep well on the plane?” or “Were you able to sleep well after reading (name of scary story)?” which indicates to me that, unlike in Japanese, this is not a default way to ask someone how they slept.

Also the fact that “Did you sleep well?” is the subject of quite a few memes is the ultimate proof that it is the better of the two, right?:

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 7.42.55 AM.png

Anyways, I think the “Did you sleep well?”/”Were you able to sleep well?” discrepancy is one example of how Japanese people use the potential form when we Anglophones wouldn’t add “can” or “to be able to” to our sentences.

Why the potential form???

The potential form is tricky… even in English. For instance, we (can) say both”I speak Japanese” AND “I can speak Japanese.” In the sense of “having the ability to speak Japanese,” they mean the same thing! Whether “can” is used depends (or “can depend”) on the person. I personally use “can” a lot, and remember my high school English teachers crossing them out in my papers. “It’s implied!” Or so they said. Anyways, my point is that even in English, different people have a different sense of when we need to use the word “can”. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising then that this sense varies across languages…

The case of できる: “to be able to do”?!

できる is another great example of how Japanese people use the potential form when we wouldn’t. In class, we’re taught that the verb できる is the potential form of the verb する “to do, ” so it means “to be able to do.” However, as you may have noticed, the Japanese use this verb much more frequently than we say “I can do something.” Some examples:

  • Perhaps your Japanese teacher wrote よくできました on a test that you scored well on. That’s their equivalent of “Good job!” More literally, it means “(You) did well!”. Note that Japanese people don’t say よくした; that by itself doesn’t mean that you successfully completed something. To get this meaning across, Japanese native speakers use the potential form – “(you) were able to do well”: よくできました.
  • できた!by itself means “I did it!!!!” or “I’m done!!!” Again, they wouldn’t say した!since that doesn’t convey the nuance of “I successfully finished something.” They say “(I) was able to do something”: できた!

In fact, there’s even a notebook (ノート) for you to write down the things you did (or accomplished) everyday:

Notice it’s *できた*こと NOT *した*こと.


Your Turn!

  1. Imagine you’re chatting with a friend in your living room and you want to go out to eat at a restaurant together. Your friend may need to go to the bathroom or grab a coat. When they’re done, you might ask, “are you ready (to head out)?”. How would you say this in Japanese?
    – HINT: “to prepare” is 準備する. Put that in potential form (and past tense!) →→→“Were you able to prepare?”
  2. Imagine you’re good friends with someone. In English you might say to them, “I’m so glad we met!” How would you say this in Japanese?
    – HINT: “Meet” in the sense of “encounter” is 出会う [であう]. Put this in the potential form.
    – HINT: “I’m glad + verb” can be rendered as “verb in て-form+よかった”.
    →→→ “I’m glad we were able to meet.”

Anyways, the point of this exercise isn’t to provide a quick and dirty list of verbs that we need to put in potential form. It’s just to make us all aware that the potential form in Japanese has more functions than just serving as a way to translate “can” or “to be able to” in English. Good stuff to know if we want to……..Sound Like A Person!!!

3 thoughts on “SLAP#6 “Did you sleep well?” vs “Were you able to sleep well?”… how Japanese people actually use the られる potential form.

  1. This reminds me that I seem to implicitly associate an image of successfully building a house by blocks whenever I see the word できた. I never think of it as “being able to do something” in occasion like this, though!


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