• 3-minute read
  • 27th July 2017

Word Choice: Cell vs. Sell

That’s right boys, girls and those who reject binary genders! We’re looking at homophones again: specifically, ‘cell’ and ‘sell’. These are pronounced the same but have very different meanings. Try not to mix them up in your work!

Cell (A Prison Room or Part of an Organism)

‘Cell’ has various meanings, but two stand out. The first is ‘a small room where a prisoner is locked up’:

His prison cell was cramped and unpleasant.

The rooms in which nuns and monks sleep are also known as ‘cells’.

Looks, um, cosy?
(Photo: AlejandroLinaresGarcia/wikimedia)

The second main meaning of ‘cell’ comes from biology, where it is ‘the smallest functional unit of an organism’. All lifeforms are made of these ‘cells’. We would use it in a sentence like:

Bacteria are single-cell organisms.

In addition, a ‘cell’ can also be a small group of people with a shared agenda (e.g. a terrorist cell) or the box in which you enter data in a spreadsheet. What these have in common is that a ‘cell’ is always a small, self-contained unit.

Sell (Give in Return for Money)

‘Sell’ is primarily a verb meaning ‘offer or give something in return for money’:

After hours of negotiating, I convinced him to sell me the car.

It can also mean ‘persuade someone of the merits of something’:

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If you want to succeed in business, you have to sell yourself.

This doesn’t mean literally giving yourself away in exchange for money. Instead, it implies self-promotion or convincing other people to share your enthusiasm for something.

A Side Note: ‘Cel’

Another word pronounced the same as ‘cell’ and ‘sell’ is ‘cel’. This is an abbreviation of ‘celluloid’ and refers to a transparent sheet used to draw cartoons. ‘Cel’ is quite an unusual term, though, so it should not be confused with the common words we’re dealing with here.

Painting a ‘cel’.
(Photo: J-E Nyström, Helsinki, Finland)

Cell or Sell?

Since there’s a big difference in how these words are used, the main trick is remembering which spelling to use for which term.

‘Cell’ (with a ‘c’) has several definitions, but the most common are ‘a small room’ (usually in a prison) and ‘the smallest structural unit in an organism’.

The word ‘sell’ (with an ‘s’), on the other hand, has one main meaning: to offer or give something in return for money. If you can remember this, you should be able to avoid confusing these terms.

Cell = A small room or part of a biological organism

Sell = Offer in exchange for money

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