A Spiel on 'Sale' and 'Sell'

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What to Know

Sale is a noun that refers to an exchange at a reduced price (“for sale” and “on sale”) or something being exchanged for money or services. Sell, on the other hand, can function both as a noun referring to something to be exchanged for money (“the house is an easy sell" or “the used car was a hard sell”) and a verb indicating the giving of something in exchange for money or the persuading of a person to make a purchase.

Although the words sale and sell are frequently seen and heard, they are sometimes misused: where sale is called for sell is used, and vice versa.

People stuff their faces with chocolates on Valentine's Day, which they bought for themselves on a clearance sell at CVS because no one wanted to be their Valentine five days ago.
The Huffington Post, 20 Feb. 2013

The causes of confusion are from both words being connected to the exchange of goods, services, or property for money, and their slightly similar sounds; they also both function as nouns. Here's our spiel on the distinct and the similar meanings of sale and sell. We hope our reputation makes it a must-buy.

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Meaning and Usage of 'Sale'

Sale is a noun and refers to an act of exchanging something for money ("The owner profited from the sale of the property"). Sell is common as a verb but can also be a noun that shares this sense of sale. (We talk more about the noun sell later.) Here is an example:

The Los Angeles Times first reported the sell of the 1964 Bermuda-style house, which sits behind gates on a one-acre lot with lavish landscaping.
— David Carpaccio, The Sacramento Bee, 15 Apr. 2020

Additionally, sale names an event or occasion during which a business sells goods or services at bargain prices (e.g., "clearance sale"; "a sale on flights to Paris"; "Everything will be 20 percent off during the sale").

Sale is the noun to use after the prepositions for and on. For sale means that an item is available for purchase ("The restaurant is for sale"); on sale also means that an item is available for purchase but often implies that it has a reduced price. When on sale is preceded by go, context should help understand what is meant. For example, the simple sentence "Tickets go on sale tomorrow" conveys that you can buy tickets at their designated price tomorrow. If something has already been made available for purchase and then "goes on sale," it can be bought at a reduced price, as in "All Christmas items will go on sale after the holiday."

The plural form sales specifies the operations and activities that are involved in the promoting and selling of goods or services ("She works in sales"). It also indicates the amount of money that a business receives from selling goods or services ("Sales are up by $5,000 this month"; "The company made over one million dollars in sales").

Meaning and Usage of 'Sell' as a Verb

We don't see anything to haggle over concerning these uses of sale, so we'll move on to our sell pitch.

Sell is a verb (its past tense is sold) that is used to indicate the giving of something in exchange for money. There are a number of senses related to this action. Not to bore you with a straight list of definitions, here are some examples illustrating some of the different meanings of the word:

He sold his motorcycle. [meaning: to exchange (something) for money]

She sells insurance. [meaning: to make (something) available to be bought]

The cookies sell for a dollar apiece. [meaning: to be able to be bought for a particular price]

The house still hasn't sold. [meaning: to be bought by someone]

Stock prices are increasing, so now is a good time to sell. [meaning: to give up something for money]

The verb also indicates the act of encouraging or persuading a person to purchase certain goods or services. Take the sentence "Cartoon characters sell the cereal," for example. Sell here means "to promote the purchase of." In "Her name on the cover sells the book," sell is used to say that the name persuades or influences a person to buy the book.

Meaning and Usage of 'Sell' as a Noun

Sell can also function as a noun referring to something to be exchanged for money: "The house is an easy sell" or "The used car was a hard sell." A related sense refers to a person who is offered to buy or accept something and does. This person is described with a modifier, as in "The purchasing agent was a tough sell" or "The Senator was a hard sell." The two nouns, sell and sale, are sometimes confused in this sense mainly because of their mutual connection to the salesperson's art of persuading people to buy something.

Downtown has a vibrancy and an inclusion that just was not there 10 years ago, she said. It has become the entertainment district and the life of the city. Once investors understand the potential of being a part of downtown, it is typically an easy sale after that, she said.
The Times Record News (Wichita Falls, Texas), 9 Oct. 2020

Just three days after Steve Cowper's decisive win in Alaska's 1986 Democratic primary election for governor, he got more good news. His wife Michael gave birth to their son, Wade. … As Cowper's campaign media aide, I pushed the new parents to milk their family addition for all it was worth. The 33-year-old Michael was an easy sale.
The Anchorage Daily News, 29 June 2016

To Wrap Up

Both sale and sell are connected to the exchange of goods or services for money. Sale includes an exchange at a reduced price, and it is used in the phrases for sale and on sale. Sell as a verb indicates the giving of something in exchange for money, or the encouraging or persuading of a person to get them to purchase certain goods or services. Although it has distinct meanings as a noun referring to something to be bought or to someone who is encouraged to buy or accept something (and does) in phrases like "easy/hard/tough sell," sell is sometimes mistakenly replaced by sale. Perhaps a way to remember that sell is the correct noun in such phrases is to keep in mind that sell is also a verb implying the encouragement of a person to buy or accept something offered.

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