Q&A: Content vs contented

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.

A: Right.

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.

A: Good.

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!

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