‘Content’ vs. ‘contents’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The distinction between content and contents is a bit tricky. First of all, “content” can be a noun (pronounced /ˈkɒntɛnt/ in British English and /ˈkɑːntɛnt/ in American English), an adjective, or a verb (both pronounced /kənˈtɛnt/; note the stress placement). Let’s deal with the adjective and the verb first.

As an adjective, “content” means “happy”, “satisfied”. Since the plural of an adjective in English is the same as its singular, it can never be “contents” in this case. For example:

He has a great job and a beautiful wife. I think he is content with his life.

As a verb, “content oneself with something” means “to accept and be satisfied with something and not try to have something better”. Just like with all other verbs, to form the third person singular of this verb, we add an “s”, making the form “contents” possible:

I wanted a new PC but had to content myself with a new hard drive because the whole PC was too expensive.
She could hire someone to wash the dishes in her restaurant, but she contents herself with doing it without anyone’s help.

Finally, as a noun, “content” and its plural “contents” have several meanings. In the singular, “content” usually refers to:

  • The whole information contained in something. The story of a novel or the subject of an illustration can be called their “content”. Just like “information”, content is always uncountable when used in this sense. The word is most commonly used in reference to the content of a website, as in,
Most websites contain mostly ads with very little content.
  • The amount of a substance contained in something else. It may be either countable or uncountable. We can speak of “salt content” or “fat content” in foods, “alcohol content” in drinks, and so on, e.g.
Bacon has (a) very high salt content.

In the plural, “contents” refer to the things contained in something:

  • In a concrete sense. We can speak of the “contents of a bag”, “contents of a bottle”, “contents of the stomach”, etc., for instance,
He dropped a bottle and spilled its contents all over the floor.
  • In an abstract sense. Traditionally, pieces of information contained in a written document are called its “contents”. You may say,
She lost the letter on her way home and remained unaware of its contents.
  • Using the singular “content” in this case is becoming increasingly more common but is still considered wrong by many. The distinction is rather subtle; if you consider the contents of a document to be separate pieces of information, you should use “contents” (which is usually the case with a letter). If you refer to them as a whole, you should use “content”it makes more sense to say that “the book contains violent content” than “the book contains violent contents”.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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