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I'm a copy editor at a law firm and need to give a quick-and-dirty explanation of the difference between "sell" and "sale" to a native English speaker (a legal secretary) who is very self-conscious about her grammar knowledge. I've already given her info about how they are different parts of speech, and some example sentences. She's still not comfortable with her understanding but doesn't know or isn't able to articulate the area(s) of difficulty. Any suggestions?

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Tell your native friend to visit Pittsburgh(my hometown) PA, then Boston, then Atlanta. If she's still self conscious about pronunciation(because that's what this boils down to, not grammar knowledge), then it's time for a career change. Our entire country speaks Slang--not English--even in the most formal settings. Chill out, "it's all good." –  bob Apr 3 at 18:14
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3 Answers

"Sell" is a verb, an action, it requires conjugation: I sell, you sell, he sells.. I sold, you sold, and so on. "Sale" is a noun, it is not conjugated and usually would appear together with definite or undefinite article "the sale", "a sale".

When person A sold something, A made a sale.

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"sell" can also be a noun: "a hard sell" and probably many other expressions in the worlds of law and marketing. –  Paul Richter Jun 19 '12 at 1:07
    
do you have some suggestion on how to disambiguate meanings in this sense? –  Tames Jun 19 '12 at 2:05
    
maybe if the person is not sure about the use, she should stick to theses uses I pointed out? –  Tames Jun 19 '12 at 12:52
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@Tames is quite right. It's the verb that's the key. And the vowel in the verb.

The verb sell /sɛl/ contains the mid front lax vowel /ɛ/, as in bet or men.

The noun sale /sel/, derived from the verb sell, contains the mid front tense vowel /e/ (also /ey, ei, ej, e:/, etc), as in bait or main. These vowels are distinctive (i.e, Phonemic) in English.

However, speakers of many languages, like Spanish and Malay, do not easily distinguish [ɛ] from [e], so there may be some cultural problems, since pronunciation is what most people use as memory cues.

If that's not an issue, then the test is

  • if it should be sale, then you can substitute an equivalent Noun Phrase like
    • the sale that Bill told me about
  • if it should be sell, then you can substitute an equivalent Verb Phrase like
    • will sell the remaining stocks
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Even some native speakers pronounce these two vowels the same before /l/, which could lead to their being confused about the grammar (consider how many people confuse effect and affect). –  Peter Shor Mar 17 '13 at 15:09
    
People only confuse affect and effect in writing; they're identical in speech, both stressed on the second syllable with a shwa in the first, and nobody cares what the first letter is -- this causes no problem. As for writing, if it's a verb, it's affect; and if it's a noun, it's effect, in almost all situations. There is a derived noun spelled affect and a derived verb spelled effect that are stressed and distinguished on the first syllable, but they're rare and technical. –  John Lawler Mar 18 '13 at 3:47
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That's what I meant to say; I guess I didn't make myself clear. Somebody (and there are such people) whose speech has sale and sell as homophones is relatively likely to be confused about them in writing, in the same way that many people are confused about the homophones affect and effect, or principle and principal. I find it somewhat difficult to believe that a native speaker is confused about sell and sale unless they are homophones for her. –  Peter Shor Mar 18 '13 at 3:53
    
Even if they are homophones, it makes no difference. In speech they cause no more problem than bear (v), bear (n), and bare (adj); i.e, none at all. –  John Lawler Mar 18 '13 at 14:53
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Effect and affect aren't homophones in the UK. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 22 '13 at 15:41
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Sell is transfer possession and ownership of goods or property in exchange for money while sale is the process of selling goods and services.

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Well, it's definitely a quick explanation. But I'm not so certain how useful it is for a person who confuses "sell" with "sale" when writing. Both sell and sale are about transferring ownership and property. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 22 '13 at 15:01
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Nothing about the difference between the verb and noun forms of the word? –  Robusto Dec 22 '13 at 17:29
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