売れる(ureru): a Mysterious Japanese Verb

By | June 29, 2022

In this post I’d like go over the Japanese verb 売れる (ureru) which can be a little tricky to understand. This verb is used fairly commonly in everyday life. First, let’s look at an example sentence:

  • このテレビはよく売れるよ (kono terebi wa yoku ureru yo)

When Japanese learners generally hear a sentence like the first time, they may get the general idea, however trying to analyze it leads to confusion.

First of all, we have the verb 売る (uru), which means “to sell”, and if you are familiar with the potential tense (ex: あるける = “be able to walk”), then you will likely interpret 売れる as meaning “be able to sell”. Applying this to the above sentence and we get the meaning “This TV is/will be able to sell well.” While this is close to the actual meaning, a key difference is that it is talking about possibility, whereas in reality this sentence should be understood as meaning “This TV sells well.” So what gives?

Well, it turns out that 売れる is a special verb that means “to be bought” (買われる) or “to be sold” (売られる), since ultimately these two things mean the same thing (whenever something is bought, it must be sold). Whereas 売る is a transitive verb (meaning it can take an object followed by the を (wo) particle), 売れる is an intransitive verb, meaning the thing being sold/bought would be followed by が or は (ex: 本が売れる). 

Perhaps because of the commonality of the verb 売れる, the words 買われる and 売れられる are not used very often (or at least I very rarely hear them). Also, it’s good to know that this verb has the nuance of “often” or “frequently”, even if a word like よく (well) is not present.

An extended meaning of 売れる is “to be popular” (in the sense of “well known”), although if you think about it any author (or other content creator) who sells well is likely to be popular, so to me it’s essentially the same meaning.

Finally, there are some compound words that use 売れる, such as 売れ残る (urenokoru) that means “to be left without being sold”, which also can be used in the noun form 売れ残り(urenokori). Another compound word is 売れっ子 (urekko), that means a popular person.

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