Word Choice: Content vs. Contents
  • 3-minute read
  • 7th May 2019

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. “Content,” then, usually refers to something as a whole, not individual items. One common use is to refer to the ideas communicated within something (e.g., a book or speech):

The content of the wedding speech made the groom blush.

But it can also refer to an amount of something within something else:

Croissants have a very high fat content.

Here, the “container” is the croissant, so the “content” is the fat in the croissant.

Contents (Plural Noun)

“Contents” is a plural countable noun. Typically, we use this when referring to something within a container, such as items in a bag:

The contents of her shopping bag spilled across the ground.

Another common use of “contents” is to refer to a page in a book or another publication that lists all the chapters or sections within:

I checked the table of contents to find the appendix.

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These are the two main uses of “contents” as a noun.

A table of contents.
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 ideas or subject matter of something (e.g., the “content of a speech”).
  • Contents is a plural countable noun. We use it for things in a container or for sections of a publication (e.g., book chapters in a “table of contents”).

If you are unsure which word to use, think about the context. Are you referring to ideas? If so, use “content.” If you are referring to something in a container or sections of a book, on the other hand, use the plural “contents.” And if you’d like further help with the spelling in a document, try our proofreading service.

Comments (39)
Quin
12th July 2020 at 09:32
Nice one. Thank you. So, as a content creator, do you say 'I create outstanding content' or 'I create outstanding contents'?
    Proofed
    13th July 2020 at 12:36
    Hi, Quin. Since a "content creator" refers to content in general, not the specific, itemizable content of one thing, it would be "I create outstanding content."
John
10th January 2021 at 22:17
So would i refer to my website's content or contents?
    Proofed
    11th January 2021 at 10:08
    "Website content" would be standard.
Tammy
13th January 2021 at 15:31
Good article. Would you say , "what the contents of the message are" or "what the content of the message is". Thanks.
    Proofed
    13th January 2021 at 16:27
    Hi, Tammy. Typically, when referring to the ideas or subject matter in a form of communication (e.g., speech, writing, broadcasts, websites), you would use the singular "content." "Contents" is primarily used for things within a physical container or sections of a book. We've made a few changes to the post now to make sure this is clearer.
      Esther
      13th November 2021 at 19:22
      So, would you say, "the contents of the pack is confidential" or "the contents of the pack are confidential"?
      Proofed
      15th November 2021 at 10:01
      Hi, Esther. If you are using the plural form "contents," you will want to follow it with a plural verb such as "are."
Indika
22nd January 2021 at 00:49
This made it all clear to me. Thank You.
melvin
27th January 2021 at 03:55
In Oxford Dictionary, there is an example sentence "She hadn't read the letter and so was unaware of its contents." The content in a letter seems no countable, but why "contents" is used here?
    Proofed
    27th January 2021 at 09:51
    Hi, Melivin. Ultimately, when referring to the content (or contents) of a written document, there is some flexibility. "Content" has become more common in the digital age, but you can still use "contents" when referring to everything in, for instance, a letter or book (it might just sound a little old-fashioned).
Lela Abbas-Sukul
29th January 2021 at 11:02
If i am writing to someone acknowledging several letters, am I correct in using contents instead of content?
    Proofed
    29th January 2021 at 12:26
    Hi, Lela. There's some flexibility here. Since you're dealing with information, the most common choice in modern English would be "content" (i.e. "the content of the letters"). But traditionally "contents" has often been applied to print information and may even be the more formal option if that is the tone you're aiming for (i.e., "the contents of the letters"). It's a matter of preference, though, and the number of letters isn't really relevant either way.
Hamdy
25th May 2021 at 21:51
I read the contents or the content of the book and it was great.
    Proofed
    26th May 2021 at 09:31
    Hi, Hamdy. It would usually be "content" in that case (unless you were referring to the "table of contents" in particular, I suppose).
Miki
28th May 2021 at 11:39
What if a container content is liquid. So we will write content or contents
    Proofed
    28th May 2021 at 15:59
    Hi, Miki. As we're still referring to something within a container, "contents" is arguably the more traditional option. But plenty of people also use "content" when something within a container is itself an uncountable noun, so either option should be clear enough. As such, it is largely a matter of preference (unless you're using a specific style guide that specifies one form or the other).
Girish
19th June 2021 at 08:16
Thanks for this. I create content (not contents). Much appreciated. Cheers!
Prisca
24th June 2021 at 23:10
So it would be Table of Content, correct? Cause google and many, many books I've read say Table of Contents. And this has always upset me but I am not sure why. I feel the plural is wrong because the content in a book is not quantifiable. Please help. I'm in the midst of putting a newsletter to bed and we are still arguing about whether it should be Table of Content or Table of Contents. Cheers.
    Proofed
    25th June 2021 at 09:35
    Hi, Prisca. We discuss this in the post: see the second definition of "contents" for what you need.
Sven Käll
2nd July 2021 at 10:59
"The contents of the ornaments" or "The content of the ornaments" ? "The contents of the ornamentation" or "The content of the ornamentation" ?
    Proofed
    2nd July 2021 at 11:08
    Hi, Sven. Ornaments and ornamentation are not usually the types of things to contain "content" or "contents," so it is hard to know which is more appropriate without knowing exactly what you are discussing. But assuming the ornaments are hollow and being used to hold things, it would seem "contents" is likely the better fit.
      Sven Käll
      2nd July 2021 at 11:26
      "The contents of the ornaments" or "The content of the ornaments" ? "The contents of the ornamentation" or "The content of the ornamentation" ?
      Sven Käll
      2nd July 2021 at 11:31
      I am wondering about runestone ornamentation. . Would it be OK to say: "The contents of the ornaments will be examined." . Or is it more correct to say: "The content of the ornaments will be examined."
      Sven Käll
      2nd July 2021 at 11:33
      Or is both OK?
      Sven Käll
      2nd July 2021 at 11:34
      (When talking about several runestones.)
      Proofed
      4th November 2021 at 14:25
      Hi again, Sven. Sorry for the slow response. It's still difficult to offer a definitive answer without knowing more about the situation, but if you're referring to either the materials used in the ornamentation or decorative depictions on the ornamentations, I would probably suggest "content."
Sven Käll
2nd July 2021 at 19:34
I am wondering about runestone ornamentation. (There are different styles, with different content/contents. For example zoomorphic ornamentation, and others with elements typical of Ringerike ornamentation.) Would it be OK to say: "The contents of the ornaments will be analysed." ? Or is it more correct to say: "The content of the ornaments will be analysed."? Or is both OK?
    Marta Fasan
    4th November 2021 at 09:25
    Talking about the ingredients of an industrial product, should I say: "Average content" or "average contents" ?
      Proofed
      4th November 2021 at 14:19
      Hi, Marta. This may depend on the product and situation, so you might want to send your document for proofreading if you're not sure. Typically, though, something like this would fall under the "amount of something within something else" example above, so you most likely need to use "average content."
John Link
26th November 2021 at 21:12
Is the final phrase of the following correct? If so, then "contents" in this context is singular, since "doesn't" is singular. I carry with me sunglasses, goggles, and reading glasses, each of which is stored in a cloth bag that is used for cleaning the lenses. The bags have cinch cords but no cord locks to secure them, so the contents of a bag doesn't always stay in the bag. (1) Or should the final phrase be thus? ...the content of a bag doesn't always stay in the bag. (2) Or thus? ...the contents of a bag don't always stay in the bag. (3) I could avoid the issue altogether: ...what's in the bag doesn't always stay in the bag.
    Proofed
    29th November 2021 at 10:06
    Hi, John. As mentioned in the post, you would usually use the plural "contents" when referring to things inside a container, such as a bag, so, grammatically, it should be "the contents of a bag don’t always stay in the bag" unless there was a reason to deviate from this. In the context you provide, though, there's also an argument for minimizing repetition of "bag" by saying something like "The bags have cinch cords but no cord locks to secure them, so their contents don’t always stay inside," which would be more concise and potentially read more smoothly (unless the repetition there serves a purpose I'm missing).
    Proofed
    29th November 2021 at 10:38
    Hi, John. As mentioned in the post, you would usually use the plural "contents" when referring to things inside a container, such as a bag, so, grammatically, it should be "the contents of a bag don’t always stay in the bag" unless there was a reason to deviate from this. In the context you provide, though, there's also an argument for minimising repetition of "bag" by saying something like "The bags have cinch cords but no cord locks to secure them, so their contents don’t always stay inside," which would be more concise and potentially read more smoothly (unless the repetition there serves a purpose I'm missing).
Waruni
6th January 2022 at 03:27
when writing an internal memorandum of the office, is that okay if I start the same as " Having considered the contents of your memo dated 01.01.2022..." and proceed with my views? I have an issue pertaining to use the term " content" and Contents" I prefer using "contents". Kindly advise.
    Proofed
    6th January 2022 at 09:45
    Hi, Waruni. As explained in the post, when referring to the ideas or subject matter of a document, the correct term would be "content."
S ramiya
14th February 2022 at 10:42
Chloroplast contain or contains various yellow pigment.
    Proofed
    14th February 2022 at 11:02
    "Chloroplast" is a singular noun, so the correct form would be "contains." You can find some more advice on subject verb–agreement here: https://proofed.com/writing-tips/subject-verb-agreement/
DB
27th March 2022 at 19:26
Would you write: "Cabbage has high water content" or "Cabbage has a high water content."
    Proofed
    28th March 2022 at 09:45
    Hi, DB. Either of those should be fine, but, out of context at least, "a high water content" possibly reads a little more fluently.

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