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I know both subject and issue mean a topic that people are discussing and arguing about, but there are many examples in which they cannot be used interchangeably.

So how are they different from each other? In what contexts is one or the other preferred?

  • Can you give any of these "examples" showing exactly what's at issue here? Obviously "you" is the "subject" of the preceding sentence, and neither "issue" in that sentence nor "subject" in this one can be replaced by the other word. We need more context. – FumbleFingers May 30 '14 at 16:44
  • For example: I have nothing more to say on the subject./The party was divided on the issue. – M.N May 30 '14 at 16:57
  • M.N: Ah, right. You want to know if there are any contexts where the two words seem to have exactly the same meaning, but where idiomatically we tend to use one rather than the other. Is that right? – FumbleFingers May 30 '14 at 17:04
  • Yes. That's right. – M.N May 30 '14 at 17:08
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    Please edit clarification into the question itself. – Tyler James Young May 30 '14 at 17:33
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OP unwittingly chose two excellent examples of where he thinks the two words are "interchangeable"...

1: I have nothing more to say on the subject.
2: The party was divided on the issue.

These totals from Google Books are relevant...

more to say on the subject 98,400 hits
more to say on the issue 5,220

divided on the subject 475,000
divided on the issue 604,000

the subject was resolved 7,430
the issue was resolved 106,000

Here's a link showing how divided on the issue has become far more common in recent decades, and here's another one showing that a popular subject remains the more common choice.


Putting it all together, where the sense for both words is area of discussion...

1: issue meaning topic, subject has only really taken off in the past half-century.
2: issue is very strongly associated with contentious topics (more argued over than discussed).

See StoneyB's comment below for more on how "legalese" usages such as the question at issue arose, eventually leading to what now looks like "near synonymy" in current popular use. Also note this trend.

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    This sense of issue derives from the original sense of "progeny, result" from legal use. To expedite trials the parties conferred with the judge to determine what factual and legal matters were actually in dispute; trial was limited to the results (issue) of this conference, the points "at issue". – StoneyB May 30 '14 at 19:51
  • @StoneyB: Excellent observation - which seems obvious as soon as you point it out, but which I wasn't consciously aware of until now. It does give me hope that many aspects of English which seem almost arbitrary (to natives and learners alike) do actually embody some degree of "logic". But as with an observation you made recently about spelling, any such logic is more likely to be explanatory rather than predictive. There's still much to learn, but at least the right approach could help you remember. – FumbleFingers May 30 '14 at 20:17
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Compare:

The subject of conversation was.. (OK)

The topic of conversation was... (OK)

The issue of conversation was... (wrong)

versus

The issue of prostitution is... (OK)

The subject of prostitution is...(OK)

Issues tend to be more about topics discussed in the context of action, whereas subjects tend to be more about objects of thought or discussion.

Compare:

It was a difficult subject to talk about.

It was a difficult issue to resolve.

Now

It was a difficult issue to talk about

is also possible, but

It was a difficult subject to resolve. (wrong).

is incorrect.

  • An issue is something that needs to be resolved, whereas a subject is just a topic of discussion. – LawrenceC Apr 16 '15 at 11:59

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