20 October 2020

Word Choice: Content vs. Contents

If you’re used to English pluralization, you might assume “contents” is just the plural of “content.” And both terms do have a general sense of “something within something.” But there is a difference between these words, so check out our guide below to make sure your writing is error free.

Content (Uncountable Noun)

The singular “content” is typically an uncountable noun. Uncountable nouns are terms that refer to something as an undifferentiated whole, such as “water” or “sand.” The main use of “content,” then, is to refer to something within something else as a whole:

The content of the wedding speech made the groom blush.

Croissants have a very high fat content.

In the first sentence above, for instance, the “container” is the wedding speech. So when we say “content,” we mean “what the speech says as a whole.” And in the second sentence, the “container” is the croissant, so the “content” is the fat in the croissant. In both cases, though, “content” involves treating something as a whole, not as separate items.

Contents (Countable Noun)

The plural “contents” is usually a countable noun. We thus use it when we can separate the “content” of something into individual items, like chapters in a book or items in a bag. For example:

I checked the table of contents to find the appendix.

The contents of her shopping bag spilled across the ground.

As such, using “contents” shows that we’re treating each item of content as a separate thing rather than lumping them together as a whole.

A table of contents.

“Content” as a Verb and Adjective

We’ve looked at the noun “content” above, but this word can also be a verb or an adjective. As a verb, it means “satisfy” or “induce a state of contentment”:

He contented himself with watching the TV.

The third-person singular form of this is “contents.” This is the only time you will need this spelling other than when it’s a countable noun.

As an adjective, meanwhile, “content” means “pleased or satisfied”:

I was content to spend my life proofreading.

But the adjectival form of this word is only ever spelled “content.”

Summary: Content vs. Contents

While “content” and “contents” can both mean “something contained within something,” there’s usually a subtle difference in how we use these terms:

  • Content is an uncountable noun. We use it when referring to the contained thing as an undifferentiated whole (e.g., the “content of a speech”).
  • Contents is a plural countable noun. We use it when the things in a container are separate and countable (e.g., book chapters in a “table of contents”).

Key when choosing between these terms, then, is considering whether you can count the contained things. The only other occasion you would use the spelling “contents,” moreover, is as a third-person singular verb meaning “satisfy,” but this is quite a rare usage. And if you’d like further help with the spelling in a document, try our proofreading service.

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