Sell or Sale?

Does the difference between the words “sell” and “sale” seem confusing? I have known quite a few students who have trouble pronouncing those two words clearly, and some are not even sure which word is which! These two words use Short-e and Long-A. Distinguishing between those two vowel sounds is tricky for many students.

Long-A and Short-e can be easily confused because they are pronounced in basically the same place in the mouth, but there is one key difference. The key is tongue tension. For Long-A the tongue is tense, but for Short-e the tongue needs to be relaxed.

Try it!
First, start by saying “A”. Then, keep your tongue in the same place, but relax it: “A” > “e”. If this seems hard to do, focus on relaxing your whole tongue, all the way back, even making sure that your neck is relaxed.

The difference between these two sounds may seem small, but the difference in the meaning is not small.
Here are some examples:

Long-A — Short-e
based/baste — best
fail — fell
gate — get
jail — gel
late — let
lace — less
main/mane — men
pain — pen
raced — rest
rake — wreck
raid/rayed — red
taste — test
wait — wet
wane — when
waste/waist — west
whale/wail — well

Some of these words could cause some funny mix-ups…

  • Do you use hair gel? — don’t say “hair jail”!
  • If you want to borrow somebody’s “pen”, don’t ask to use their “pain”!
  • On several occasions I have heard students say something like “I have to study for my taste” or “I’m nervous about the big taste tomorrow.” — they were actually talking about a test at school.

Even if a word with Short-e does not have a similar word with Long-A, it can make it hard for others to understand you if your tongue is not relaxed for Short-e.

So, which is which — sell and sale?

SALE -is a noun (and a homonym of “sail”). For example:
“The bookstore is having a big sale this weekend.”
“I’m waiting to see if that computer goes on sale before I buy it.”
“His house is for sale.”

SELL -is a verb. For example:
“I want to sell my old books.”
“They won’t sell it at a lower price.”
“He hopes that his house will sell quickly.”
(The word “sell” does also exist as a noun, but it has a different meaning and is used less frequently.)

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About Pronunciation Coach
I am a language teacher, with over 20 years of experience teaching ESL & Spanish.

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