I read one sentence

About 170,000 of those vehicles sell each year in the U.S.

It is extracted from:

The large vehicle is part truck and part car. Strength and size combined with comfort. Some well-known sports utility vehicles are the Jeep Cherokee, the Cadillac Escalade and the Toyota Land Cruiser. About 170,000 of those vehicles sell each year in the U.S. If you owned one of those cars, it would cost almost $100 to fill the tank when gas was most expensive.

Can vehicles sell themselves? Shouldn't it be passive voice here? If this sentence is correct, then would every unanimated subject sell themselves?

  • 1
    In fact, a sentence such as These awesome vehicles sell themselves is common, meaning a salesperson does not have to make much effort to sell these particular vehicles. They are considered so awesome that people don't need to be convinced to buy them. Jul 15, 2016 at 14:42
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    Just for your information. Also in italian, the use of "sell" as transitive is lecit: "The Bon Jovi's new album sells very well" <=> "Il nuovo album dei Bon Jovi vende molto bene"
    – sineverba
    Jul 15, 2016 at 14:54
  • 1
    – shawnt00
    Jul 15, 2016 at 16:37
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    As per the answers, they're not selling themselves; they're merely selling (i.e. being sold).
    – Mathieu K.
    Jul 16, 2016 at 6:16

4 Answers 4


It is possible to use the verb sell with the article being sold as the subject. Here is a definition from the Cambridge Dictionary entry:

to be bought in the way or quantities that are mentioned; to be sold at the price mentioned

Here are some examples:

the album has been selling well over the past three months
their previous album only sold 60,000 copies
this product would sell better if the packaging were improved


"sell" is an ergative verb. An ergative verb, according to Wikipedia, is:

In linguistics, an ergative verb is a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive.

There are many other examples of such verbs, like "boil". I can say "I'm boiling the water". But I can also say "The water boils".

In the latter case, you can leave out the subject that is performing the action (of "selling" or "boiling").


Sell seems to be very special. I found that it has a passive definition.

3. : to be sold or priced
<The new product is selling well.> <These sell for a dollar apiece.>

So, in your example, it means

About 170,000 of those vehicles are sold each year in the U.S

So, if an item (any item) can be sold (passive), then I believe it can also sell (active).


Check out the third bullet point at OxfordLearnersDictionary for the verb sell

be bought [transitive, intransitive] to be bought by people in the way or in the numbers mentioned; to be offered at the price mentioned

sell (something) The magazine sells 300 000 copies a week.

Their last album sold millions.

The book sold well and was reprinted many times.

sell for/at something The pens sell for just 50p each.

Even though the verb is indeed in the active voice, it actually takes on the meaning of the passive voice. Pretty wonky.

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