According to Longman, a contractor is "a person or company that agrees to do work or provide goods for another company", and according to Merriam Webster, it is "one that contracts to perform work or provide supplies". But does this mean that "contractor" can be used about anyone who performs any kind of job under a contract? Or, in more concrete terms: would all of the following be correctly referred to as "contractors"? If not, is there another word that would cover all of them? Would "employee" work?

  1. A private teacher who is employed by someone to teach their kids for a fixed period of time

  2. A lecturer at a university who is teaching a number of classes at a different uni, under a separate contract

  3. An accountant who is temporarily hired by a company to help out with their accounting

  4. A freelance journalist on a particular assignment

  5. Anyone with a permanent employment

1 Answer 1


A contractor is a person or company that agrees to perform a specific task (work, supply of goods etc.) with defined start and end conditions. For example paint a door, supply a batch of materials, repair a power line and so on. It is a term frequently used in the construction and engineering sector. The very name implies that a legally binding contract of some kind is involved whether it be formal, verbal or an order/invoice.

However it can be applied to other areas. So 1,2,3 and 4 can be described as contractors as those involved are performing a defined task or groups of tasks for a specific length of time. On the other hand anyone in permanent employment has no fixed end point (other than resignation or retirement) and would be described as an employee, not a contractor.

A contractor gets paid for a specific piece of work whilst an employee gets a salary for ongoing work.

  • Thank you! So, would you say that "contractor" would be the better choice of word for anyone performing a temporary job, so that "employee" wouldn't be as idiomatic, or would "employee" be the most natural/neutral choice even with people performing a temporary job (even though "contractor" could also be used)?
    – Helen
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 22:14
  • 1
    @Helen In general a contractor is performing a temporary task (however small or large, paint a door, build a damn) and an employee has an ongoing relationship where they perform a sequence of tasks (projects) that may change with time. It is perfectly possible to say "I employed Joe to paint my door" as well as "Joe was the contractor who painted my door". On the other hand I worked for IBM for 20 years on a number of different software projects and was always described as a salaried employee. See addendum to my answer. Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 22:22
  • Excellent! That last line that you added there kinda says it all – doesn't it? I wish the dictionaries out there could be as clear...
    – Helen
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 22:40

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