Q: Do you think “sell-through” should be hyphenated when it’s used as a marketing term? One of my associates argues that “sell-through” should only be hyphenated if it’s an adjectival phrase, not a noun phrase.
A: The phrase “sell-through” is hyphenated in most dictionaries. And the hyphen is there whether the phrase is used as a noun (“We were hoping for a quick sell-through”) or as a modifier (“The sell-through numbers were good”).
Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster’s Unabridged give the term as hyphenated. So do the Cambridge Dictionaries Online and the Collins English Dictionary.
Only one standard dictionary, as far as we know, disagrees. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives it as one solid word, “sellthrough.”
However, we think a hyphen makes the term easier to read, so we’d recommend “sell-through.”
The OED defines the noun phrase “sell-through” as “the retail turnover of a product” or “the proportion of goods (of a particular type) purchased wholesale which is successfully sold to consumers at retail, typically expressed as a percentage.”
The term has been around since the late 1970s, according to citations in the OED. The earliest example is from a 1978 article in Business Week: “The sell-through on our Time-band watches was nearly complete.”
This later example is from a 2001 issue of the New York Times: “We look at the weekly sell-through of our products … and listen to what our customers are saying.”
Oxford describes another meaning of the noun phrase that dates from 1985: “the practice of marketing videotapes or DVDs for retail rather than rental,” or “a videotape or DVD marketed in this way.”
Here’s an early example, from a 1988 issue of the Sun, a newspaper in Brisbane, Australia: “Slackening sales of pre-recorded video cassettes for rental purposes have forced many small video publishing companies to sharpen their focus on ‘sell-throughs.’ ”
And in this 1994 example from the Face, a London magazine, the phrase is used attributively (that is, adjectivally): “Arthouse films have become more readily available on sell-through video.”
If you’re using “sell” as a verb in its usual sense, of course, the words “sell through” aren’t hyphenated: “I sell through eBay” or “His car was sold through Craigslist.”
In such constructions, “sell” is a verb and “through” is an adverb describing the manner of selling.