Negative Verbs - Nuance of "Not"

Hi there, I had a question regarding Verb [ない]:

For the negative forms of verbs, it is in it’s most basic sense to “not” (insert verb). Example: 飲みません → to not drink.

But for the form of “not”, I’ve come to realize there are three subclasses of nuance to not:

  1. Don’t (usually not)
  2. Won’t (intentionally not)
  3. Can’t (unintentionally not)

Example: 飲みません – Can be interpreted as “I do not drink”, “I won’t drink” and “I can’t drink”. Other than blatant context, how do you tell the difference in a written text? Do I have this understood correctly, or am I missing something with this nuance of “not” for negative verb forms? I feel as though in a lot of instances it’s not easily apparent what the author or sentence is trying to convey.

I appreciate any insight. Thanks!


Context is very important in Japanese, so for ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’, you would know from the conversation you were having or the book you were reading, etc. As for ‘can’t’, you would use a different conjugation - either this one or this one.


Thanks @matt_in_mito ! Quick question on the potential form (れる / られる)… I haven’t gotten that far in my studies yet, so I don’t know this yet…but I’m assuming there is also a negative potential form? That would cover my “can’t” scenario. I would just have to decipher if the context is “won’t” rather than “don’t”. I just didn’t see a negative form in the lesson that you linked, so wondering if this exists.

I’ll have to go ahead and dig into potential forms better now. Thanks Matt!


Potential form turns the verb into a ichidan verb, so it would follow the same negative structure as ichidan verbs. For example:
行く Dictionary form “to go”
行ける Potential form “can go”
行けない/行けません Negative potential form “can’t go”


Literally just take off the る and replace it with ない, or take off the ます and replace it with ません.
I wrote an explanation of the conjugation ages ago. You can read it here.

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Even though I haven’t properly delved into potential forms, I do recall reading that they basically act as ichidan verbs after adding the “え” sound to the stem…so this is very helpful and will reinforce the thought, especially once I dig into potential forms properly.

Thanks for the help everyone :slight_smile: Cheers!

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