I am quite confused.
It seems that sometimes people use the active voice "sell out" & sometimes they use the passive voice "be sold out" to express the idea of "(of tickets for a concert, sports game, etc.) to be all sold".

  1. The tickets sold out within hours (active voice i.e, The tickets did sell out within hours). Source

  2. This week's performances are completely sold out. (passive voice)

Sometimes it is not "the performance" that is sold out, it is "we're sold out." (passive voice) Source. And sometimes it is "we've sold out" (active voice) Source

I have evidence that "to sell out" = "to be sold completely". E.g., The tickets will sell out by tomorrow but "We can't get into the theater because the tickets are sold out." Source

Could you explain how to use "sell out" & "be sold out"?

  • Please post one or two examples for sell out. The phrase is sometimes used to mean something like betray or leave a business, and I'd like to know if you're asking about these as well, or just referring to sales. Either way, examples for sell out may help when answering.
    – Lawrence
    Mar 19, 2016 at 15:49
  • 1
    @Lawrence, I just mean "(of tickets for a concert, sports game, etc.) to be all sold", no other meaning
    – Tom
    Mar 19, 2016 at 15:56
  • Sometimes in sports, people refer to the "sellout crowd"...it's a single word used add an adjective. That might get shortened to a phrase like "it's a sellout"
    – Gus
    Mar 19, 2016 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


The term sell out is sometimes called a phrasal verb. Some grammarians prefer to simply call it an idiom. In either case, you can't discern the meaning by looking up the components. Sell plus out taken literally would mean commerce outside, but the term actually has two different meanings.

The first is that the entire stock of some commodity has been sold and none of it is available:

[1a] The tickets sold out ten minutes after the box office opened.

Notice that this is an intransitive usage, i.e., there is no object. That means that there can be no passive-voice construction. With active transitive verbs, you can transpose to the passive by making the object into the subject and making the subject the object of the preposition by:

[2a] ACTIVE: The box office sold the tickets.
[2b] PASSIVE: The tickets were sold by the box office.

You can't do that with sold out. There's no object X to make the sentence

[1b] X was sold out by the tickets ten minutes after the box office opened.

And a good thing, too, since it doesn't make any sense. In the sentence

[3a] The tickets were sold out.

sold out is the past participle acting as a predicate nominative, describing the subject tickets. It has the same syntactic form and meaning as

[3b] The tickets were unavailable.

It is idiomatic to transfer the unavailability of the commodity to the seller. Thus the cashier at the box office may say

[3c] We are sold out of the tickets.
[3d] We have sold out of the tickets.

Both mean We have no more of the tickets left to sell. The grammar remains unchanged.

The second meaning of sell out is to abandon one's principles, talents, or allies. This may be intransitive:

[4a] He was a brilliant writer, but when he went to Hollywood, he sold out

or transitively

[4b] He sold out his supporters when he voted for the tax increase.

The implication of sell is that the sell-out has been induced to his action by some form of bribery -- by money, position, influence, etc.

  • 1
    Why you avoid to explain "we're sold out" & "we've sold out"
    – Tom
    Mar 20, 2016 at 0:34
  • I think "sell out"="be sold out" / "the tickets sold out"="the tickets were sold out"="the performance sold out"="the performance were sold out".
    – Tom
    Mar 20, 2016 at 1:05
  • @Tom See my edit for we're and we've. if by "=", you mean that the phrases mean the same thing, then you're correct. The syntax is different though.
    – deadrat
    Mar 20, 2016 at 1:35
  • Let say the concert sells tickets & I am the ticket seller. Can I say "the tickets sold out"="the tickets were sold out"="The concert sold out"= "The concert was sold out" ="I sold out"="I was sold out"?
    – Tom
    Mar 20, 2016 at 2:31
  • @Tom Context is everything. If you're talking to a customer now, you can say The tickets sold out, The tickets are sold out, The concert sold out, The concert is sold out, or The concert has sold out. For last night's concert or tickets sold out, was/were sold out work. This has to do with the way the English verb system represents time, not so much with the phrasal verb. I sold out and I was sold out sound too much like the second meaning.
    – deadrat
    Mar 20, 2016 at 5:56

As I understand it, all the examples you gave are active voice. A good way to identify passive voice is the presence of is/are/was/were + [verb] + by:

The tickets were sold by the box office.


The box office sold the tickets.

Saying we've sold out, or the performance has sold out, is an example of metonymy, where a word is used instead of a related word.

More info about active vs passive

Ddefinition of metonymy


'We've sold out' comes from the phrasal verb "to sell out", in the present perfect tense.

'We're sold out' is using the multi-word adjective "sold out" in the present tense.

They mean essentially the same thing.

Note what happens if you change the tense to the future:

In the first case, "we've sold out" becomes "we will sell out". "have sold out", changes to "will sell out", because it's a verb. In the second case, "we're sold out" becomes "we will be sold out". Here, the verb is "to be". The adjective, "sold out", remains unchanged.

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