Koto ga dekiru – Power and not power in Japanese

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The idea of being able and not being able to do something in Japanese can be expressed in various ways, ranging from informal to formal, and passing through verbal expressions and conjugations. At first it seemed quite complicated to me, but after thinking about it for a while, things seem to get clearer and easier to assimilate.

In spite of that, for today, I will comment only on the simplest way of saying what we are capable of doing and what we are not able to accomplish. This shape is known as ことができる.

Building the expression koto ga dekiru

To talk about what we can and cannot do in Japanese, let's use the words ことが and できる. Where こと is a word that means "thing" or "about something",  is our famous subject particle and できる is the verb “power” in Japanese. Together, these words form an expression meaning “to be able to do something”, “to be able or have the ability to do something”, “to be able to do it” or simply “to be able to”.

We must be extra careful when reading texts in Japanese, because できるis usually written in hiragana, but may appear on your kanji form. 出来るinformal or in formal mode 出来ます.

How to use the expression koto ga dekiru

To create sentences with ことができる, just build the sentence normally, but conjugating the verb in its simplest form, known as dictionary form.

If you want to know more about Japanese verbs in dictionary form, I suggest you read the article, “Japanese verbs in informal mode“.

Thinking this way we can create the sentence 私はパンを食べる and change its meaning by adding ことができる after the verb. So we will have 私はパンを食べることができる.

Optionally you can exchange できる by its formal mode, or masu form, 出来ます, giving greater formality to the sentence. So, the sentence above would be 私はパンを食べることが出来ます.

Note that the sentence pattern is always subject + wa + object + o + verb + koto ga dekiru/dekimasu.

The past with koto ga dekiru

In the case above, we found out how to use the expression ことができる in the formal and informal present tense. Now, let's move on to the other tenses, starting with the affirmative past.

Regardless of the tense of the verb in Japanese, we usually only conjugate the verb できる for the sentence to change tense. In the case of the past, just change できる per できた, in the informal past, or by できました in the formal past.

Examples:

私はパンを食べることができた。
私はパンを食べることが出来ました。

Koto ga dekiru and the negative present

Following the same rule, to say that we can do something in the negative present tense, just change the verb できる per できない, in informal mode, orできません, in formal mode.

Examples:

私はパンを食べることができない。
私はパンを食べることが出来ません。

The negative past with koto ga dekiru

The negative past is formed by exchanging できる per できなかった, in informal mode, or 出来ませんでした, in formal mode.

Examples:

私はパンを食べることができなかった。
私はパンを食べることが出来ませんでした。

Dekiru and phrases with the verb suru

I found it very interesting when I discovered that sentences composed by the verb する, may change direction when we switch する per できる. In these cases, the meaning of the phrase usually changes from “doing” to “being able to do”, “knowing how to do” or something like that.

Example:
彼女は飛行機を操縦する
彼女は飛行機を操縦できる

Using dekiru in short sentences

In some short sentences, we can use the verb できる right after the noun, making use of the particle . Check it out:

田中さんは日本語が出来ます。
僕はギターができない。

Kanji calligraphy exercise

Below are the Japanese ideographic symbols used in this article. Selecting the desired kanji, copy and paste them into Worksheet for Kana and Kanji Practice , a new window will open where you can view the printable file and practice Japanese calligraphy by covering the gray symbols and then trying to write yourself. Just print and practice.

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