The way I learned Japanese conjugations for the potential form of “eru/iru” verbs was to remove the stem and add ~られる。All other verbs involve removing only the last character and then adding a character with the same consonant, but with a え sound, (for example く would change to け ) followed by a る.
Potential (可能) in this context means the ability to do something (without having necessary actually done it), and can also represented in Japanese via the expression “verb + ことができる”. In English we typically use the “can” form for this (ex: “I can do it”).
Here are a few examples of the potential conjugations for the two types of verbs.
- 食べる＝＞食べられる (eru/iru verb)
- 見る＝＞見られる (eru/iru verb)
Here is a example sentence of using the potential form:
- Can you eat meat?
This was all fine and great, and after some practice I finally was able to say 食べられる which can be real tongue twister.
Then one day I heard a Japanese person say “食べれる” and at first I was puzzled. Was it a dialect or some sort of other conjugation I hadn’t learned? After hearing it many times I figured out it did have the same meaning, and to top things off it was even easier to say, so I ended up using it myself sometimes.
It was just recently that I decided to investigate this strange conjugation, and I discovered it is a phenomenon called ら抜き (ra-nuki), where 抜き means “to omit”. This makes sense since the only difference between 食べられる and 食べれる is the missing ら in the second (shorter) form.
ら抜き is a practice which is essentially a corruption of proper verb conjugation, and has become popular among younger Japanese people. It is used not only in spoken conversation, but sometimes even in writing. This slang usage has extended even to some politicians and other cultural figures who appear on TV.
However, there are those who are against omission of ら for these verbs. One of the reason is that it is still technically incorrect grammar, and you can see this pointed out in some school-grade textbooks. For the most part it is avoided in some places like newspapers, and in fact you can even see the ら “corrected” in subtitles sometimes. (Subtitles are commonly used in Japanese TV for places like newscasts, even if the person is speaking is a native)
However, language is an evolving thing and my feeling is this usage will stay and become even more widespread over time.
Besides the fact it is one less syllable to speak (the Japanese language is known for shortening words to make them easier to pronounce, like パソコン from パソナールコンピューター), it’s interesting to note that this shorter conjugation is only used for the potential form, not the passive form (受身). For example, let’s look at the following statement.
Using the “proper grammar” and retaining the ら, the above statement has two different meanings:
- (I) can eat an apple. (potential)
- The apple will be eaten. (passive)
However with the ら抜き corruption, those two meanings would be expressed differently.
- リンゴが食べれる => (I) can eat an apple. (potential)
- リンゴが食べられる => The apple will be eaten. (passive)
When I was first leaning these forms, I was frustrated that one conjugation represented both meanings (though this is only for the eru/iru verbs). To make things worse, there is a third usage of this conjugation which expresses respect towards the subject.
My personal feeling is that ら抜き a natural evolution in the history of Japanese, and I plan to keep using to use ら抜き both because it’s easier to say, and because of the easy differentiation between potential and passive forms.
However, when using written Japanese or when speaking to a new person, I will try to keep to “correct” grammar, at least for the short term. And if you happen to take any Japanese tests I’d recommend staying away from ら抜き to avoid upsetting your teacher (:
1) There are some that claim that ら抜き’s usage is influenced by geographical region, and that some regions treat it as proper grammar (such as Nagano prefecture).
2) Much of the information in this post I got from this site.