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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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Single definitions cause most of the trouble here, though that’s made more confusing by the idea that "Section" is smaller than "Part” which has little and usually irrelevant justification , don’t you think?

“The front section of the car contains the headlights” might be true but it would not be more correct than “The front part of the car contains the headlights”, would it?

However, “a headlight is part of a car” would be correct while “a headlight is a section of a car” would be fairly clearly wrong, because of vocabulary, not grammar. Does anyone really think that has as much to do with custom or practice or idiom as with strict definition?

Section and Part can be generically similar; even interchangeable, but each has more than one meaning and some are by no means equivalent.

Yes "in sections of Canada, French is the first language" is correct in exactly the same way as “in parts of Canada…” Personal preference more than anything else may make either more desirable.

A Lego spaceship is indeed made of Lego parts, not Lego sections and “section” does describe areas not normally discretely divisible, but that is like sections of a building only in terms of technical drawing; just possibly of architecture but not in terms of the act of construction.

Generically the front Part of a spaceship or building or car might just as well be the front Section but specifically the Parts of a car include axles, wheels and nuts and bolts each in and of itself complete but also, individually, largely useless.

That is quite different from the from the way in which the front - or rear - Part of car includes all of the above. Specifically, a wheel is a Part but never a Section of anything. In a rather different context, Section has much more specific meanings which are wholly different from Part.

Etymologically, Section can be either noun or verb and either way, comes from Latin Sectio, to cut - more obviously seen in Dissection, for instance.

It’s very easy, mentally, to separate or “cut” front from back or left from right and only a little skill is required to do that with a laboratory sample, or to a patient in an operating theatre but on a building site or in an aeroplane factory, that might be impossible.

Between the two meanings lies the Section used in technical drawing. It’s easy both to imagine and to physically see the front or rear or left or right or top or bottom of whatever is being built but in most cases it’s difficult and many times it’s impossible to actually see how a car or a building or a plane would look arbitrarily cut it in half three feet from the back or specifically at the point where the axle meets the chassis or where the joists sit on the wall.

Very vaguely similarly an orange can be viewed as a whole object. Parts of the orange include the skin, the pith, the pips or seeds and the fruity segments. The orange can be cut or Sectioned any way the chef or diner prefers but Parting an orange would not be a realistic concept.

The fruity segments of an orange could be Parted from the skin, but not by slicing or Sectioning.

Segments of an orange can be Parted but not Sectioned from the rest, or from each other.

The front Section of any object is a purely arbitrary conception in which Section could as easily be Part.

The verb To Section, as in a bodily organ or a laboratory specimen, is a physical act highly unlikely ever to be compared with To Part even though pedantically, the Parting of the waters of the Red Sea might be thought of as “Sectioning”. To Section is to slice or cut a single thing into pieces, probably damaging if not destroying both the thing and the resultant pieces; to Part is to separate or disconnect the individual pieces of a complex whole, always n such a way that they can be reassembled to re-form the original item.

A “Section through A” in technical drawing is a purely imaginary construct having plenty of use to architects or builders or designers or engineers or technicians but no real meaning in physical terms. In terms of technical drawing, “a Part view through Section A” would be tautological, at best. Section A 𝘪𝘴 the Part view; it cannot be viewed through itself.

Broadly, a Part is a thing physically complete, even though probably useless, in and of itself; designed to be combined with other Parts of a whole which by definition, is greater than the sum of those Parts.

Either a Part or a Section might generically be a portion or area or region of something else but in such a case the shape, size and position would be arbitrarily defined.

Contrarily a Section can specifically mean either a portion - generically but never specifically, a Part - sliced off or out of or through a larger object, or a view of the remainder after an object has been sliced into pieces, either physically or imaginatively.

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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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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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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
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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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The question is very easy and I was shocked when I saw the answers. Think a bit about movies like harry potter (its all his movies divide into different parts and every section has own part, so that the whole story divide into many parts and finanlly that the parts is unlimited and can develope any time and make more movies or more books can put into sections.

  • Personal comments about someone's question are not helpful. – Karlomanio Mar 22 at 14:39

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