Content or Contents? Which is correct?

“Content” and “contents” can be challenging to use correctly because some standard rules of English don’t apply to their use. They also have numerous definitions, function as more than one part of speech, and can just be confusing. These words prove the accusation that the English language is frustrating with its intricacies and exceptions.

I didn’t understand my mistake. I had written, “…sales strategies and public relations policies are explained in the contents of my business plan...” My professor circled “contents” in red and included “use singular form” as an explanation in the margin. I confronted him, and he explained. Read on to find out why I was wrong.

Uncountable Content And Countable Contents

“Content” and “contents,” defined as “an amount contained in a thing,” don’t work like most singular and plural nouns. “Content” [kŏn′tĕnt′] is singular, but it is a singular uncountable noun. “Contents” is plural, but it is known as a plural countable noun.

It is proper to say “the book’s content” and not “the book’s contents.” The amount of whatever contained in the book is uncountable and thereby singular. Likewise, there is “the water content of our oceans” or “the content of water in our oceans.”

When you break down the content of a book into countable sections, you will have a “Table of Contents.” When it comes to a box, it is proper to say, “the contents of the box.” The contents are countable or measurable, in weight, a number of items, or volume, thereby plural.

Another Use As A Noun

“Content” [kənˈtent] can also be used as a noun to mean “a state of satisfaction.” “The honeymoon was her time of greatest content.”

Content And Contents As A Verb

As a verb, the words mean “satisfy.” Use “content” [kənˈtent] with a helping verb, as in “He will content her with roses” or “She would not content herself with daisies.” Use “contents” alone, as in “Instead, she contents herself with trifles.”

Finally, Content As An Adjective

One meaning of “content” [kənˈtent] used as an adjective is “in a state of peace or happiness.” “His wife was a content woman” or “Ever see such a content cat?” Another meaning is “willing to accept, satisfied.” “Mary was content with the settlement” and “Bill had to be content with a second-place finish.” Adjectives in English do not take on plural endings so contents is incorrect in this context. 

As far as my professor’s edit, I would have been right to use “contents” if my wording had been, “sales strategies and public relations policies are contents of my business plan.” As I worded it, “content” was the correct word to use.