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?

  • 2
    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."
    – user70986
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 18:14
  • The title should be left alone, k200,000 views confirm that it is this title, in all its simplicity, which is being sought.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 21:17
  • 1
    I rolled back the title to its original because it was more grammatical than it's "improvement"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 21:30

3 Answers 3


"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.

  • 10
    "sell" can also be a noun: "a hard sell" and probably many other expressions in the worlds of law and marketing. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 1:07
  • do you have some suggestion on how to disambiguate meanings in this sense?
    – Tames
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 2:05
  • maybe if the person is not sure about the use, she should stick to theses uses I pointed out?
    – Tames
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 12:52

@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
  • 4
    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). Commented Mar 17, 2013 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. Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 3:47
  • 4
    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. Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 3:53
  • 5
    Effect and affect aren't homophones in the UK. Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 15:41
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth: as a fellow Brit, they are homophones for at least some of us. Unless I’m hyper-articulating, I don’t think I make any distinction between them in most contexts — the first vowel in both is usually a schwa for me. (An exception: in the noun sense of affect, I stress the first syllable.) The OED agrees with you, though: it gives the British pronunciation of affect as /əˈfɛkt/, and of effect as /ᵻˈfɛkt/.
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 17:43

Sell is transfer possession and ownership of goods or property in exchange for money while sale is the process of selling goods and services.

  • 4
    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
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 15:01
  • 6
    Nothing about the difference between the verb and noun forms of the word?
    – Robusto
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 17:29

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.