Word Choice: Cell vs. Sell
  • 3-minute read
  • 14th September 2017

Word Choice: Cell vs. Sell

Depending on the word, the letters ‘c’ and ‘s’ can both make the same sound. Don’t try to understand it. There’s no point. It’s just one of many confusing situations that we have to deal with when using the English language, especially with words like ‘cell’ and ‘sell’.

These terms sound exactly the same but have nothing in common otherwise. As such, it’s vital you know the difference between them when writing.

Cell (A Small Room or Part of an Organism)

‘Cell’ has various definitions, but all of them indicate a small, bounded area of some kind. One of the most common uses, for example, is to refer to a small room (usually in a prison):

The cell was dirty and unpleasant, with one small window for light.

In biology, meanwhile, this word usually refers to part of an organism:

There are three types of blood cell: red, white and platelets.

But we also talk about cells in relation to electricity (e.g. a battery cell) or small groups of people (e.g. a terrorist cell). The key is that all refer to a single unit within a larger group or structure.

These pictures always make being a blood cell look kinda thrilling. We suspect this is not actually the case, though.
(Image: qimono)

Sell (Exchange for Money)

The word ‘sell’, meanwhile, means ‘exchange goods or services for money’. The past tense of this word is ‘sold’. We would use it in a sentence such as the following:

I’ve been selling used cars ever since I left school.

It can also be used more metaphorically to mean ‘promote’ or ‘persuade’. For instance:

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If you want to get a job, you need to sell yourself in the interview.

He wasn’t convinced to join at first, so I went for the hard sell.

In both of these, nobody is actually exchanging anything for money. It simply draws on the idea that you can only ‘sell’ something to someone if you convince them it’s worthwhile first!

A Side Note: Cel

Although a much less common term, some use ‘cel’ to refer to the transparent sheets used in traditional animation. This ‘cel’ is short for celluloid, but it is only used in relation to cartoons.

Cartoons: the devil’s work.

Cell or Sell?

Since there is no overlap between the meanings of these words, it should be easy to know which one to use in any given situation.

If you’re not sure, though, keep in mind that ‘cell’ is almost always a noun (i.e. a thing), while ‘sell’ is usually a verb (i.e. an action). Remember:

Cell (noun) = A small room or enclosed unit

Sell (verb) = Exchange for money

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