Topic vs subject – what is the difference

The words “topic” and “subject” may appear to be the same to the average user of English. They sound identical to the point they have been interchanged in regular communication or loosely used such as “Let’s change the topic,” and “Let’s change the subject.” If you were to comprehend these two, they would still make sense to you and arrive at the conclusion they are the same.

And yet there are those who beg to disagree. They assert that these two words are similar in the sense there are some differences.

The Difference

While the two words may sound the same to ordinary folk, linguistics experts do not agree and attempt to delve into the technical nature of these words which lies in the context.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary, “topic” is “a subject you write or speak about.” The “subject” on the other hand, is “an idea, problem, or a situation, etc. that you discuss or write about.” The Longman Dictionary provides a better view of the differences. “Subject” has various meanings when applied in different contexts. In the context of academics, “subject” refers to a course, “an area of knowledge that you study at a school or university.” In the Collins Dictionary, “topic” is “a particular subject that you discuss or write about.” When we say, “topic,” this is the matter or issue currently talked about. It is the specific part of a subject. From here, we can now surmise that a “subject” is broader and more general in scope.

For instance, if were to have for a subject “Television” or “TV.” This subject is very broad and general in nature to be discussed in full. If you are to do a research paper or even a thesis on television, you are likely to cover a lot of ground as there are many things to discuss about television.

Therefore, you will be advised to narrow it down by choosing a particular topic to discuss about television. Topics such as:

  • Does violence in TV shows make one violent?
  • Cable or Satellite TV
  • Soap Operas

But it does not stop here. You may also break these topics down into more specific ones.

  • Does violence in TV shows make one violent?
    • Do violence in TV shows affect children and make them violent?
  • Cable or Satellite TV
    • Why are many people subscribing to satellite TV?
  • Soap Operas
    • What makes soap operas very popular?

The reason why you just cannot write about a broad subject is first of all, it is too general. There is so much proverbial ground to cover and you may never finish writing the subject because of its vastness. Narrowing it down will make it easy for you to focus on that particular topic and keep you from straying off course. The other reason is other topics have been take up. This will challenge to come up with something new, something not yet brought up.

There’s More

The above “topic” shows how “subject” and “topic” are used in the context of writing and composition. There are others who say that it is all in the context. One expert says “subject” has academic connotations, which can be inferred the word is used mostly in the academe when discussing something.

A “topic” has none of these connotations and associations and therefore, it can be concluded it is used outside the context of academics.

In the context of grammar, “subject” is the doer of the action. This is usually the first word of a sentence and it is always a noun or pronoun.  For Example:

“Harry drives a car to work.”

“Harry” is the subject because he is the doer of the action which is driving a car. You can never interchange or replace the word “subject” with “topic” to describe Harry.

In order to turn this simple sentence into a “topic,” you will need to be more elaborate.

“Harry drives a car to work rather than take a bus because it is more convenient for him.”

At this point, we have now provided a topic. “Harry” is still the subject because he is performing an action. If there is one topic that can be derived, it can be the benefits of driving a car over commuting.  But this is just one topic. You can probably come up with more topics out of this if you look hard enough.

Despite the differences shown, it will be hard-pressed to convince the average folk of the difference between “subject” and “topic.”