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Understanding the Difference between Subtotal and Total

When you’re tallying up numbers, you’ll often come across the terms “subtotal” and “total.” Whether you know the difference or want to find out, this article will highlight some key differences that will help you use them correctly.

Total is used to describe the final, overall sum of the other sets of numbers or subtotals. in contrast, subtotal describes the total of one set of numbers that will later be added to another set. Subtotals are used to show a calculation that forms part of a larger total sum.

You might then wonder why we use “subtotal” at all since we will ultimately include it in the overall total anyway — and that’s a valid question that we hope to address in the sections to follow.

To start off, we’ll first take a closer look at the definitions of both subtotal and total, followed by examining specific uses and related words to reinforce our understanding of the differences.

What Is a Total?

While a subtotal is the sum of a category or subgroup, a total is the complete calculation of all sets of categories or subgroups (source).

From an etymological sense, it is interesting to see that the word “total,” from Latin totalis, has not strayed far from its original definition, meaning “entire, all at once,” and other associated phrases pointing toward summing up everything (source).

Totals and subtotals are not limited in what items they can calculate — they can result from counting money, people, or objects.

Though totals are most common in the financial and accounting fields, we are also not limited to using them in areas where we are adding or subtracting. We can also use it in reference to multiplication and subtraction, though these situations are less common.

More often, in multiplication, we refer to the result as a “product.”

However, it is also important to point out that both totals and subtotals can result in a negative amount as well. We can see this in financial and mathematical calculations, in cases where negative figures outweigh the positives.

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Subtotal: the “Sub-” Prefix

The key difference between subtotal and total is the addition of the sub- prefix. We use prefixes to modify the meaning of a word. There are a handful of prefixes that we use, and the way they attach to their base remains relatively consistent.

Prefixes can either add additional meaning to the base word or alter it to mean something completely new — such as how anti- shows that its subject is against or contrary to the word that follows (source).

Not every prefix has such a drastic impact on what follows, though — many have a far more subtle effect, like the prefix sub-. “Sub-” indicates that the subject is subordinate or secondary to a more important subject (source).

Prefixes are similar to suffixes, with the main difference being that prefixes join at the front of the base word, whereas suffixes join at the end of the base word. We look deeper into how suffixes work in our other article, “Complement vs. Supplement: Understanding the Difference.”

What Is a Subtotal?

A subtotal is a milestone calculation within a larger whole. It would be the answer to one section’s calculation that contributes toward the bigger picture (source).

Etymologically speaking, “subtotal” is a relatively new word, as it only appears in English as a noun in 1906, with the verb following shortly afterward in 1916.

To better grasp what a subtotal is, we’re going to look at a few of the areas where we might apply them. Below, you’ll find three uses; however, this is by no means comprehensive. The three uses listed below are simply the most common, and you may have encountered them before.

A Calculation before Adding Tax or Shipping

Tax varies between states, which can make operating a business challenging since what your customers pay would vary depending on where they purchase it.

Store owners, particularly national retailers, find it helpful to advertise the subtotal to indicate their sale price. Still, buyers need to understand that this is not the final price they will pay for the item; the store will still have to charge them for the appropriate tax amounts when they check out.

Another common addition to the cost of a purchase is shipping. Typically, a customer will fill a cart that will show the subtotal of the order before the store adds in additional costs like shipping. 

It is common for retailers to show both a total and a subtotal, particularly when there is an order threshold that qualifies customers for free shipping.

In cases like these, what the store ultimately charges the customer is the total they actually pay, meaning it is the sum of the order’s subtotal, the tax on the purchase, and the shipping charges.

In Budgets

Another common area for us to use subtotals is in budgets. They can appear in everything from personal budgets to household budgets, all the way up to business and government budgets.

Budgeters often use subtotals to compare their income to their expenditure to ensure that they break even, save money, or make a profit.

In cases like this, our income subtotals would involve adding up all sources of incoming funds — such as salaries, wages, interest, and the likes. 

Our expense subtotal would tally up all the areas where we spend our money. Of course, the goal would be to make sure the income subtotal is larger than the expenditure subtotal.

Another way that someone might apply this would be to tally up amounts within a category. For example, you have a weekly grocery budget of $300, and you spent $50 on Monday and $120 on Wednesday; this would mean your subtotal spent so far would be $170.

This subtotal is important information, given that there is still time to shop again later in the week, after which you can calculate your total spend for that week.

Subgroup Attendance

We not only apply “subtotal” in reference to money — we can use it with all numerical values, including people and objects, too.

If, for example, we wanted to calculate the number of employees at a large company, physically counting each one would be an arduous task. Instead, one could speak to managers and build up subtotals of each department, floor, or office block before calculating the final total.

This method helps us make alterations to the calculation further down the line as well. If we needed to add to the count from one specific section, we can simply do so since our calculation would have subtotals for each that we can change in accordance with the new information.

However, if we’d used only the headcount method from start to finish, it would require us to start from the beginning again and recount.

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Should It be Subtotal, Sub-Total, or Sub Total?

By definition, prefixes are the first few letters at the start of a word. This implies that they are attached and integrated into the word itself, so “subtotal” is the correct option.

Here are some other examples of the sub- prefix and how they modify the meaning of the base word to emphasize this point further.

Base WordMeaningWith PrefixNew Meaning
Power stationA generation plant responsible for creating electricity that powers a city or feeds into the national grid.Power substationA distribution node that provides localized electricity to a neighborhood.
EditorThe person who has oversight of a body of writing, particularly overseeing its preparation for publication. Has the final say.SubeditorMakes edits to a body of writing, though reports to the editor.
GradeA level of quality that someone or something must meet.SubgradeBelow the expected level of quality.
SonicOf or relating to sound, particularly the speed at which it travelsSubsonicSlower than the speed of sound, as in the antonym of supersonic.
WooferA loudspeaker designed to produce the low notes in an audio recording.SubwooferA loudspeaker designed to produce the lowest notes in an audio recording.

It is very clear that we modify the meaning by adding the prefix, and, as these examples show, we do not use a space or a hyphen in these cases.

Sub-Total or Sub Total

On a very rare occasion, you might find someone using “sub-total,” but this is incorrect. There are only a limited number of cases when we can correctly use a hyphen with prefixes, namely, ex-, self-, and all- (source). 

We can use hyphens in other different ways to modify words, such as denoting the difference between an adjective and a noun. If you’d like to read more, take a look at another of our articles, “High Quality or High-Quality: Understanding When to Use a Hyphen.”

Finally, “sub total,” with the two words completely separate, is incorrect and could lead to confusion, particularly since “sub” is a standalone word and could be read or understood out of context.

Ways that Accountants Signify the Difference

As we’ve pointed out, it’s common for people to use subtotals and totals in the same budget, document, or calculation, so how do accountants denote each?

It’s normally a personal preference, but we can use a few different methods to denote subtotals and totals.

Firstly, we can use a bold typeface to show the total. When scrolling through a spreadsheet with many rows of data, this visual cue helps our eye jump to the most important part.

Secondly, there are traditionally separate labeled rows on invoices or spreadsheets that mark locations for subtotals and totals. These may also have color fills, with the darker colors indicating totals as opposed to subtotals.

Lastly, when pushed for space, we might need to simply put a “T:” or an “S:” next to a figure to show that it is the result of the data around it. This isn’t always effective, particularly when another person needs to read and understand the document.

Gross and Net Totals

One would be forgiven for thinking that denoting something as the total would mean that it is the final sum — that is, after all, the definition that this article has provided.

However, we need to remember some circumstances where that may not be the case, and there are additional calculations that follow afterward.

A perfect example of this would be income tax, which we traditionally apply after adding the total income together and subtracting the deductions. In the finance world, they refer to this as the distinction between gross and net income.

Gross income would be what we’d assume as our total when working out how much money we should receive each month. Its calculation would cover things like bonuses, overtime, and commission while also covering allocations like unpaid leave and contributions towards retirement funds.

Net income is what we often forget to calculate — it is our gross income minus our tax obligations. Net income is a financial term, meaning the total change to your bank account as a result of the payment — or simply your “take home pay.”

Sometimes, calling something a total may not mean that we have completed all the necessary calculations.

Not everyone will have to engage in these kinds of definitions too often, though, but it is still important to be aware of.

Final Thoughts

We use totals to show the end result of a sum. These calculations can be any number of things, like an attendance count or in a financial sense. A total is often a final tally of smaller totals that we have calculated along the way.

We might refer to these smaller totals as subtotals. We traditionally use them to sum up a specific set of data relating to one category or as milestones as we calculate a final total. We commonly find subtotals on invoices, where they’ll list several items before adding items like taxes and shipping later.