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When referring to a room (in a building), what is the difference in usage, if any?
I looked up the definitions and checked some sample phrases, but I could not see any real difference.
I usually read or use 部屋, but I came across this term [一室]{いっしつ} meaning "one room". So I am wondering what the difference is.

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I think that 部屋 usually refers to a room in a house/apartment, where someone resides. 室 is somewhat broader and often refers to a room with a particular function.

This seems to be reflected in the names of the rooms in a house/apartment:

Rooms with a particular function

  • 寝室
  • 客室
  • 地下室

Rooms that are lived in

  • 子供部屋
  • 仕事部屋
  • おもちゃ[部屋]{べや} or 遊び部屋

In other buildings, too, special-purpose rooms usually end in [室]{しつ}, e.g. 事務室, 図書室, 洗濯室, 音楽室. (Also cf. 和室 "Japanese-style room".) Maybe that is just because 室, which is 音読み, sounds more formal than 部屋, which is 訓読み. For example, a public building won't have any 部屋, only rooms with a description (like 演奏室) or a number.

If your rooms are numbered, they are usually numbered as 132[号室]{ごうしつ}, but you usually count rooms as [一]{ひと}[部屋]{へや}, etc.

Note that 室 is a bit broader than the English "room". 132号室 could be a small apartment, consisting of several rooms. I think of 室 as anything that has one door from a hallway.

One last remark would be that I talked about the difference between 部屋 and 室 as suffix. But in conversational Japanese, I would say that 室 works almost exclusively as suffix (or prefix), whereas 部屋 is a word that can be used by itself to refer to a room. So if you want to say "I entered the room", or anything similar (i.e. without specifying which room), your choice will be limited to 部屋 (unless you want to sound literary).

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You have removed the final edit so my comment does not apply but I will explain. I think 室/しつ is the old Japanese word for room and because it is so old it seems to have other wider meanings than just an alternative for 部屋 –  Tim Mar 10 '13 at 15:40
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室 as しつ can also be a prefix, as in 室内, 室温etc., but you are right that it's almost exclusively used as a bound morpheme in modern Japanese. The kanji also has a kun-yomi むろ, but this is fairly archaic except for in certain fixed combinations. –  dainichi Mar 11 '13 at 1:52

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