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What is the difference between "section" and "part"?

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says for "section":

one of the parts that something such as an object or place is divided into

and says for "part":

a piece or feature of something such as an object, area, event, or period of time

I know that "section" is smaller than "part" in size, but I'm totally confused about their usage in sentences. For example, is "the front section of the car was damaged" correct grammatically? Or is "in sections of Canada, French is the first language" correct?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

To me, section implies some formal division between areas of an object or place, whereas part is a more general term which doesn't have a clear boundary. Neither say anything about size.

Both of your examples are grammatically correct, but the word choice gives you some nuance. So, "the front section of the car was damaged", would suggest that the front area of the car, up to some structural division was damaged.

Your other example:

In sections of Canada, French is the first language.

This sounds a little odd to me. In parts of Canada... sounds more natural, unless you're trying to highlight some boundary between the areas.

Below are some other examples with the more natural word (though either word would be strictly grammatical). Note how section highlights formal divisions, whereas part is used for things without clear boundaries:

The violin section of the orchestra.

Which section is non-fiction in?

The first section of the ship was assembled on time.

I'd like that part of the cake.

I like to sit in the warmest part of the room.

Parts of the country are suffering drought.

Edit: Note that sections tend to be made up of smaller individual pieces. Violinists in an orchestra, books in a library, or words in a newspaper (as in Aaron's example).

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Based on my experiences as a native in the USA:

Neither "part" nor "section" refer to a specific size. In terms of dictionary and grammar correctness, they can be used interchangeably.

Part is more commonly used. I would use "part" in both of your example sentences. Sections tend to be used only in specific contexts (for example, sections of a newspaper).

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I would use the word part to describe something that was divisible into discrete components. For example, a lego spaceship is made of lego parts, not lego sections.

I would use section to describe areas of something that isn't necessarily discretely divisible, like a sections of a building.

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I agree with your examples, but not your reasoning. Buildings are divided, by walls or floors. However Lego "parts", although discrete, are individual pieces, and a section is made up of smaller pieces. – deadly Jan 17 '13 at 16:13

These are general words that don't have concrete definitions in the sense that you seem to be driving at. Both are used when some large "thing" is divided into smaller "things". There's no rule that a section is 1/10 of the whole while a part is 1/20 of the whole or any such.

Note that while "part" can be used generally to mean a subdivision, it also has the more specific meaning of a discrete mechanical component within a larger assembly. Like we routinely refer to "car parts" meaning spark plugs, oil filters, alternators, etc. But then these parts can often be broken down into yet smaller parts. Like an alternator may have a rotor, a stator, an armature, mounting bolts, etc. So in the case of a mechanical device, I'd avoid using "part" in the more generic sense. Like I'd say "the front section of a car" rather than "the front part of a car".

It's not necessarily true that a section is smaller than a part. If you said, "For this discussion, we will divide the nation into three major sections, and each of those sections into several parts", I can't imagine that anyone would find that confusing on the grounds that parts should be divided into sections and not vice versa. Divide things up as is convenient in context.

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Just to add an example in which you use them differently: In latex, you can divide a document (or a presentation) in several parts, and each part has its own chapters, sections and subsections. So, in this particular case, part is more general. See more about sectioning in latex

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