Grammar Info
N2 Lesson 1: 2/21

unable to, cannot

Verb[ます]+ ない
Verb[ます]+ ません
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使用域 硬い
得(え)る is a る-Verb that has the meaning of ‘to gain’ or ‘to acquire’. When attached to the 連用形(れんようけい) form of verbs, it takes on the nuance of ‘for (A) to be possible’, or ‘able to (A)’. In addition to this, when 得(え)る is combined with ない, that nuance switches to ‘unable to (A)’, or ‘cannot (A)’.
  • 我(わ)が社(しゃ)に出来(でき)得(え)ないことなどありません。
    There is nothing that our company can’t do.
  • 警察官(けいさつかん)は信頼(しんらい)し得(え)ないと思(おも)っている人(ひと)たちが増(ふ)えて来(き)た。
    More people are coming to believe that police officers cannot be trusted.
Compared to できない, meaning that the potential to do something does not exist. 得(え)ない means something closer to ‘there is no possibility that (A) can be done’, or ‘the possibility to do (A) has not been gained’.
Caution - 得(え)る may be seen as either える or うる. The primary difference between the two being that うる is a relatively old form that is often seen only in literature, and almost never spoken. Despite this, うる is never used in the negative form with ない.
  • そんな大(おお)きな災害(さいがい)は起(お)こりえないと思(おも)います。
    I think that it is impossible for a disaster that big to happen.
  • そんな大(おお)きな災害(さいがい)は起(お)こりうないと思(おも)います。
    I think that it is impossible for a disaster that big to happen.
Fun-fact - 得(え)る is far more formal/bookish than できる. However, there are several set phrases that are very common in daily speech that use this particular grammar point, such as あり得(え)る ‘possible’, and あり得(え)ない ‘impossible’.
  • まあ、それもあり得(え)るかもしれないけど...
    Well, that is possible, but…
  • 田中(たなか)さんはすごく頭(あたま)がいいので、不合格(ふごうかく)になるなんて絶対(ぜったい)あり得(え)ない。
    Tanaka-san is very smart, so it is absolutely impossible for him to fail.
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The average criminal is a person you can't trust.
His attitude is unbelievable.
It is not possible for me to achieve that dream.