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:
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:
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,
- 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.
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,
- In an abstract sense. Traditionally, pieces of information contained in a written document are called its “contents”. You may say,
- 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”.