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I got this email from a colleague:

I am writing because product #55 has not sold and we would like to expand the list...

Is this the right sentence structure or should it be written:

I am writing because product #55 didn't sell and we would like to expand the list..

  • 3
    Ooh, I think this may be a British vs American English issue. "Has not sold" is perfectly correct, but not common in AmEng, and strikes this AmEng speaker as sounding British, where as "didn't sell" is much more idiomatic to the left of the Atlantic. Any Brits care to comment? – Codeswitcher May 22 '16 at 6:47
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    @Codeswitcher (Native AmE here.) It sounds ordinary to me, not especially British. I could be wrong, of course. I just posted an answer with a couple examples from the U.S. – Ben Kovitz May 22 '16 at 8:46
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Has not sold suggests that product #55 is still available for sale.

Here's a typical example:

My house has been on the market for two months. Why hasn't it sold?

This implies that the house is still on the market. The speaker made the house available for sale two months ago, and no one has bought it yet. The speaker is still trying to sell the house.


Didn't sell suggests that the period when product #55 could have been sold is now over.

For example:

Your house was foreclosed but didn't sell at auction.

This means that the house was placed for sale at an auction, no one bought the house, and the auction is now over.

Another situation where you might say that product #55 didn't sell is if it's a seasonal item and the season is over. For example, if product #55 is a winter coat, and it's now summer, you might say that product #55 "didn't sell": it had its chance in the marketplace, and it failed.


In this context, didn't sell can mean "didn't sell enough to be considered successful". The simple past suggests that we have enough evidence to conclude that product #55 was unsuccessful. We know. The present perfect has not sold can suggest that there may still be some way to make product #55 successful or perhaps you need to allow more time for sales to pick up. However, if product #55 has been on the market for a long time, has not sold can mean that you are suggesting that now it is time to give up.

The difference in meaning comes from the fact that the present perfect tense locates the action in a time interval that starts in the past and reaches at least to the present, while the simple past tense locates the action at a certain time in the past. When no time is specified with the simple past tense, there is usually (not always) an implication that the event finished in the past and is not continuing in the present.

For more about this, see my answer to this question. (Note that not everyone agrees with the time-interval theory.)

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As a BrE speaker, both are commonly used. As the accepted answer implies, "product #55 has not sold" is a (possibly informal and/or grammatically "incorrect") abbreviation of "product #55 has not been sold". It may have been withdrawn from sale, or it may still be available but nobody has yet bought it. That usage would apply to a single item, which (obviously) can only be sold once. The word "product" is not very idiomatic - the usual generic word would be "item", or a specific noun like "house", "car", etc.

"Product #55 didn't sell" would more often refer to something which is produced in large quantities and sold to many customers. The meaning is not that none of the product was sold, but that the total sales were lower than expected. For example a processed food manufacturer might say that "bacon-and-egg-flavoured yoghurt was very popular in specialist delicatessens, but it didn't sell in Walmart", or a history of the motor industry might say that "the Ford Edsel didn't sell" - though of course some people bought that model of car.

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The phrases look like they have identical literal definitions, but there may be some difference implied by the actual usage.

"has not sold" suggests that the product has two possible states: sold, or unsold. If you have 1,000 items, not one of them has sold, and so you still have 1,000 items.

With the phrase "did not sell", the word "sell" might suggest "selling well". Maybe you sell lemonade and strawberry lemonade for 15% higher cost. Maybe lemonade was a popular item, but only 0.2% of people chose to use the strawberry add-on. It just didn't "sell". Although some strawberries were indeed sold, the product failed to take off.

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