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When writing a document that is divided into numbered sections and subsections, sometimes I would like to refer a certain subsection that has been numbered 2.3, for example. Here the 2 represents the section number and 3 is the subsection number within section 2.

Should I refer to "Section 2.3" or "Subsection 2.3"?

To me, the latter seems tautological (or at least not completely necessary) since the "sub-" component of "subsection" is implied by the number 2.3 itself.

[PS: I picked a fairly vague tag since I cannot create a more suitable tag]

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I have to agree with you.

Collins Dictionary defines "subsection":

a section of a section; subdivision

It is certainly grammatically correct to use either word, and I think it is semantically correct both ways as well. However, as you say, writing "Subsection 2.3" it introducing redundancy, as it is (as you say) blatantly obvious that section 2.3 is a subsection of section 2.

I would say, however, that "Section 2.3" does not imply a subsection, it seems rather explicit that it is a subsection, to me.

A quick search on Google for "Section 2.3" and "Subsection 2.3": Section has 1.2 million hits. Subsection has 46,000 hits. So it definitely makes much more sense to drop the "sub-".

If we have the document:

  1. Birds
    1.1. Parrots

    This is a bunch of information about parrots.

    1.2. Hawks

    This is a bunch of information about hawks.

Both "Parrots" and "Hawks" are sections in their own right. They are simply sections within sections.

This is similar to the folder metaphor in computing. A folder contains many subfolders, but each subfolder is still a complete, and real, folder in its own right.

Princeton University's WordNet defines subsection:

(n) subsection, subdivision (a section of a section; a part of a part; i.e., a part of something already divided)

Furthermore, Merriam-Webster defines section:

a distinct part or portion of something written (as a chapter, law, or newspaper)

So if one takes a section, then takes another logical portion of that, that is another section–also a subsection–that happens to be inside the original section.

E.g. a chapter is a section of a book. A paragraph is a section of a chapter. A sentence is a section of a paragraph. We can logically divide anything into however we like.

Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines subsection:

one of the smaller parts into which the main parts of a document or organization are divided
  Further details can be found in section 7 subsection 4 of the report.

From the example, we can see that they have referred to section 7.4 as section 7, subsection 4.

My understanding of all this, is that we can call top-level sections, just "section". But we can call non-top-level sections either "section" OR "subsection".

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What on earth does that Google search prove? If the things are broken into chapters, then that would mean that it actually was section 2.3 and not referring to a subsection at all. – delete Aug 13 '10 at 6:01
The Google search proves common usage. Common usage is what makes English English. – Vincent McNabb Aug 13 '10 at 6:09
@Vincent: you've missed my point - if the document is divided into chapter 1, 2, 3 and section 1.1, section 2.3 then "section 2.3" would be the correct name. If the document is divided into section 1, 2, 3 then one would expect subsection 1.1, subsection 2.3, etc. – delete Aug 13 '10 at 6:11
So you would refer to C:\Users\Vincent\Documents as a sub-sub-sub-folder? Or would you simply call it a folder? – Vincent McNabb Aug 13 '10 at 6:18
@Vincent: sorry you have completely lost me, what are you talking about? – delete Aug 13 '10 at 6:21

Considering a section is already a "a distinct part or portion of something written", subsection can seem redundant at first.

But the definition of subsection states:

a subdivision or a subordinate division of a section

The notion of "placed in or occupying a lower class, rank, or position" is important, and distinct from the definition of "section".
That is why you also find subsection used in sports ("subsection title")

"2.3" is not "a section within "Section 2".
The full meaning of what is in 2.3 is "subordinate" to the general context presented at the beginning in section 2.

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And yet, so many times, I have seen documents which refer to their subsections as sections. – Vincent McNabb Aug 13 '10 at 6:37
@Vincent: I agree. I am simply trying to point out a specific difference between the two notions. – VonC Aug 13 '10 at 6:44
Does that mean the subsection is a section when the section is present but is a subsection in the absence of the section? I.E. if make a citation, I should refer to "subsection 2.3" in order to allude to there being more than just the subordinate section. I ask because the follow up question would be, under what circumstances can I use "section"? – mfg Oct 27 '10 at 20:20
@mfg: I believe the word "section" is appropriate whenever the global context in which that section is embedded is not necessary to understand the reference you make. But if your reference can be further enriched by the content of the parent section, then "subsection" can be a useful hint to that subordination link. – VonC Oct 27 '10 at 20:25

In law, you clarify what you are talking about when referring to a subsection by saying "Subsection 23 (1)" or in spoken English you would say "subsection twenty-three, one". You can also say "Section twenty-three, Subsection one".

The purpose of saying "subsection" twenty-three (1) is to set in the mind of the listener or reader, that you are going to refer to a subsection, not the section the subsection you are referring to is subordinate to.

Statute Example:

23 All dog leashes shall be solid blue in color unless;

 (1) The dog is a seeing-eye-dog, then the leash used on this type of dog shall be solid yellow in color.

Using the statute example above, a person who is reading this law could say that according to subsection twenty-three, one, a person with a seeing-eye-dog has to use a solid yellow leash.

They could also say that according to section twenty-three, subsection one, a person with a seeing-eye-dog has to use a solid yellow leash.

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