Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we're content with our lot!
Q: Hi AWC, can you tell me the difference between “content” and “contented”?
A: Very good question. Assuming you mean the adjectives for both.
Q: What else would I mean?
A: The noun – e.g. “the content(s) of a room” or “have you written that content for the website?”
Q: Ah okay. Yeah, no. Not those.
Q: And also not the place where prisoners go camping.
A: Ummm… Where do prisoners g–
Q: A con tent! Geddit? A tent filled with cons? Bahahaha.
A: Oh dear. Okay, none of those then.
Q: That’s right.
A: So with “content” and “contented”, there is some good news – they are, for the most part, interchangeable.
Q: How did we end up with two similar words then?
A: It seems that during the 15th century, English was cosying up to both Latin and French and ended up with two love children that it couldn’t choose between.
Q: I know the feeling. My mother says it is always so difficult when she has to choose my brother over me.
A: We’re going step around that can of worms. Now, interchangeable they are – but with some exceptions.
Q: What are they?
A: Well, if you’re going to put one before a noun, it should be “contented” rather than “content”. For example, “she was a contented person” or “he had a contented look on his face”.
Q: And other times?
A: We recommend that you use “content” for most other situations. For example, “she was content to stay where she was” or “they are content with the final arrangements”.
Q: So you’d be content with your life, but live a contented life?
A: That’s right.
Q: Anything else?
A: There is something that seems to be a subtle difference at least here in Australia.
Q: Oooh, I know. Do we add an “o” on the end, like “contento”?
A: No, that’s not a thing.
Q: What about “contezza” like we do for “Shazza” and “Dazza”?
A: Again, no. It’s that many see “content” as being completely neutral, while “contented” has warmer, fuzzier overtones.
Q: As if adding “ed” was like adding fabric softener?
A: Yes, something like that.
Q: So how would that work in an example?
A: “He sat on the hill in the sun, content with his life” is perfectly fine. However, some prefer to write “He sat on a hill in the sun, contented with his life” to add an extra sense of pleasantry to the scene.
Q: I just hope he’s wearing sunscreen.
A: Remember, using either word here won’t get you in trouble. Both mean “satisfied” but there is a reported happier vibe to “contented” that we didn’t want to ignore.
Q: Okay, I’m content with that answer.
Q: Hey, how do prisoners let you know they’re having a great time on camp?
A: No idea. How DO prisoners let you know they’re having a great time on camp?
Q: They call you from their cell! Geddit? “Cell”?
A: It’s hard to hide our discontent at these jokes.
Q: Oh, so do the adjective versions “discontent” and “discontented” work the same way?
A: Yes, they’re equally interchangeable. Although choosing “dissatisfied” might be better though – just as “satisfied” can replace our original pair.
Q: I think I’m out of bad prison jokes.
A: That’s the best thing you’ve said all day.
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!