I am looking for the differences between contain, include, and consist of; I am interested in precise use of each word in an appropriate context.

Aside from their general meaning which implies something exists inside something else, can anybody please conceptualize the differences between these verbs and sketch a guideline how to chose a proper verb according to different contexts?

To be more precise, when I am saying:

  1. A contains B and C.
  1. A includes B and C.
  1. A consists of B and C.

How we can compare the meaning of the above sentences?

The one here I found was not very comprehensive.


3 Answers 3


The three verbs have almost the same meaning. So what is the difference? The only difference is that the three Latin verbs come from three different simplex verbs (verbs without a prefix).

contain comes from Latin ten-é:re meaning to hold. A whole can "hold" several elements together. Latin con- meaning together.

include comes from Latin claud-ere/clud-ere to close. To include meaning to close in. A whole can "close in" several elements just as a city wall closes in a lot of different buildings. English to close is related with the third stem claus-um of claudere.

To consist comes from Latin si-st-ere, itself a derivation of Latin stare/stere meaning to stand. The Latin prefix con- often means together. So if you say "The whole consists of several parts" you actually say "Several parts stand together and form a whole".

So all three verbs express the same meaning. But language can express one idea with different words.


While the existing answers are not wrong, I think there are a few distinctions worth mentioning. An example may help:

Consider a box. Inside the box, there is a red hat, a yellow hat, and a blue hat (and nothing else). Each of the following is an accurate and correct statement about this situation:

The box contains a red hat and a blue hat.

The contents of the box include a red hat and a blue hat.

The contents of the box consist of a red hat, a blue hat, and a yellow hat.

It would grammatically correct, but inaccurate, to say:

The contents of the box consist of a red hat and a blue hat.

This is because (as Jasper points out), 'consist' is used for an exhaustive description of a set.

The distinction between 'includes' and 'contains' is a bit more subtle. 'Contains' is used when there is something else that is doing the containing. The box is a container, and contains the hats. You would not, generally, say that the box includes the hats. Inside the box is a set of objects, and that set (which 'contents' refers to) includes (and consists of) the hats.

'Includes' is also often used when talking about the features of a product or thing for sale. If I were selling you the box, I might tell you that it includes three hats. In this case, I'm not pointing out that the hats are inside the box, but rather that the box and the hats are all part of the set of things I'm offering to sell.

  • 1
    In the phase "A contains B", "A" could be the whole, just like others, but A could also be a container. So a box, or cup can "contain" something, but not "consists of".
    – ryenus
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 17:36

It is possible for "A contains B and C" and "A includes B and C" to mean the same thing. It is also possible for them to have different meanings. For example:

  • "A contains B and C" could mean that A is a container, whose contents include B, C, and possibly other things. For example, a mixing bowl (A) could contain flour (B), and sugar (C). It could also contain eggs (D).
  • "A includes B and C" could mean that A is made up of B, C, and possibly other things. For example, a cake batter (A) could include flour (B) and sugar (C). It could also include eggs (D).

"A consists of B and C" means that B and C are the only components of A. For example, a glue (A) might consist of flour (B) and water (C). This statement means that the glue does not include any other ingredients.


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