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Not a native speaker, so not sure if this question is appropriate for this forum. Is there a difference between "a contentious discussion" and " a discussion on something contentious". Apparently the former is more "concise", but as the definition of "discussion" is "an act of discussing", "an examination of a matter", it seems to me that only the TOPIC of a discussion could be contentious. The "discussion" per se only describes the behavior, which should not be "contentious". I think "a heated discussion" is fine, but "contentious"? Any idea? Thanks a lot.

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  • I think this is general reference. One definition of 'contentious' is involving heated discussion, so the usage is entirely appropriate. You can also have a non-contentious, healthy discussion about a contentious (controversial) subject.
    – Lynn
    Oct 14, 2014 at 16:29

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A contentious discussion is a discussion in which those who are having said discussion stir up a lot of contention. The subject matter itself need not be contentious.

e.g. "Your honor, My wife and I were engaged in a contentious discussion over where we would eat that night."

Very few people would consider the subject matter inherently contentious, but as anyone who has been married more than two months can attest, the discussion itself can get quite heated. At that point, it is contentious.

According to Merriam Webster contentious can mean:

involving a lot of arguing

Again, two people can argue over the most innocuous and trivial matters.

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As Lynn says (in a comment), a discussion on something contentious is not necessarily a contentious discussion.  For example, a group of employees (of the same company) who all live in New York might have a calm, cheerful discussion about a proposal to give all employees in New York a pay increase.  This might turn into a contentious discussion if people from other cities joined in.

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