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These two seem to overlap almost completely. The only thing I can really tell is that 触れる seems that it can also be used in a metaphorical sense ("touch on" something; feel; perceive). I'm interested in how they a different in the sense of physically touching something. It seems like they can almost always be used interchangeably, but I hardly see 触る as much as 触れる. Yet earlier, I was reading my Japanese Bible, and within a few lines of each other, they are both used.

...女が近寄って来て、後ろからイエスの服の房(ふさ)に触れた。

(a few lines down the page)

イエスが二人の目に触り...見えるようになった。

How do you choose which one to use when speaking of physical touch? Do certain circumstances or situations warrant one over the other?

Related question: Is the potential form of 触る (= さわれる) ever used? Because when reading ふれる, I'll often reading it as さわれる and then have to correct myself.

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Say, wouldn't the full potential form be 触られる? The れる form is just られる subect to "ranuki", right? So then if you want the potential and be perfectly clear, maybe use 触られる. –  Kaz Jan 14 '13 at 22:47
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@Kaz: さわれる is not a ら抜き言葉, and both さわられる and さわれる are traditionally valid. ら抜き言葉 is the case where you attach -れる to a vowel-stem (aka type-2) verb, such as 起きれる, but さわる (sawar-u) is a consonant-stem (aka type-1) verb. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 15 '13 at 13:50

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

You're right that 触れる can be used metaphorically, but 触る is normally reserved for physical touch only.

触る generally indicates a stronger, more intentional kind of "touch" than 触れる. From the other perspective, 触れる is often used to convey a sense of gentle or light touching, or even "brushing against" something.

Note that it's possible to use the particle を with the object of 触る, but you shouldn't use を with 触れる.

There's no grammatical problem with saying 触れる(さわれる), and in this case it's the job of the reader to discern from context whether the writer intended さわれる or ふれる. However, I think ふれる would be far more common, just because we don't often have occasion make a statement about our ability to touch something.

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The only part I'm not sure I agree with is 触れる being used only for "light" touching. Because I've seen signs in museums, stores, etc. like 手を触れないように or 手を触れないでください, and that (to me) indicates something more forceful. –  istrasci Jan 14 '13 at 22:44
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@istrasci: I do not think that that is a counterexample to the claim that 触れる is lighter than 触る. I think that the choice of 触れる here means “Do not touch even lightly.” However, your example is a counterexample to the claim that 触れる should not be used with を. Although we say 手で物に触れる, it is common to say 手を触れないでください for some reason. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 15 '13 at 14:05

「触る」is only for real, physical touch while「触れる」could mean something abstract. Such as:

  • 「この件に触れる」= to talk about this matter
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