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I'm not a native English speaker. What is the difference between these terms, and which is more common?

"contractors" vs. "construction companies"

If I want to say:

"It's a software vendor for ..."

, which is more suitable and what is the difference? If I would use "contractors", would anybody understand that it's software for construction companies?

Generally I have always been a bit confused about the term "contractor": while it also means "entrepreneur" or somebody who takes on a contract/job in general, I figure it does not necessarily need to be in the construction field.

Why, from a historical perspective maybe, has "contractor" nevertheless become a term commonly used and understood as "construction contractor"/"home improvement contractor" when somebody just talks about "contractor" - depending on the context of course.

Still, I am confused because the explanation: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/contractor does not say anything about construction, and Google Translate shows this:

While none of the explanations (two yellows marks at the bottom) say anything about "construction" or "home improvement", the translation clearly translates to German "Bauunternehmen" (which means "Construction company" in German).

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  • A construction company specifically works in creating buildings/architecture, whereas a contractor is any individual working independently but hired by a company to do some work. For example, I'm a contractor working for a local games studio but I'm not a construction company. – John Clifford Mar 30 '16 at 10:54
  • For the same reason that "operation" (and, now, "procedure") often means "medical procedure". It depends hugely on context, but if there is no relevant context then "medical" is assumed for "operation", and "building" for "contractor". (Actually, I think the latter is much less so in BrE than AmE. We are also more likely to say "building" than "construction"). – Colin Fine Mar 30 '16 at 10:55
  • @JohnClifford Yes, that would also be my understanding from a logical perspective, since the word is derived from "contract" in general. Therefore wondering why Google translates it to "Construction company" in German without having given any context about construction/building business. – Mathias Conradt Mar 30 '16 at 10:56
  • I think it originally meant independent construction workers and was later expanded to mean people in any service, but I could be wrong. That, and Google Translate isn't exactly the most reliable service on the planet. – John Clifford Mar 30 '16 at 10:58
  • @ColinFine Ok. So assuming I would want to make an entry in a company directory where all kind of companies are listed, let's say LinkedIn, I should use "construction companies" or "building companies" rather than "contractors" since on such directory, there is no specific context / industry context given. – Mathias Conradt Mar 30 '16 at 10:59
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I agree with your distinction between "contractor" and "construction company."

Why is contractor used beyond the construction field? I believe first, because in America terms often are imported from other fields to impart status. For example, the term "intern" or "interne" was originally used only in the medical field to apply to young doctors in training. Now it's applied to anyone working at a company ostensibly for training, usually college students. Therefore, it probably sounded more impressive to someone to say he or she was a "contractor" instead of a temporary employee, which is what many contractors are.

Second, contractors, or more formally, "independent contractors," often literally have a contract, that is, an agreement, that defines the responsibilities of the individual to the employer.

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  • I agree with the first statement, but not with your reasoning. In the software industry, "contractor" means "an indepedent contract worker in the industry". In building (construction) "contractor" means "a person or company that subcontracts a specialist part of a job". This is not an extension of meaning to a different field: it is essentially the same meaning, in the different fields. But far more people encounter building contractors than software contractors, so that is the primary application in most people's minds. – Colin Fine Mar 30 '16 at 11:40
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I will add that the term 'general contractor' is, very specifically, the lead construction firm on a construction project (as opposed to a sub-contractor). In this context, the term general contractor has likely been shortened, for linguistic convenience, to 'contractor.' There is no doubt that the use of this term for a specific trade is confusing, when the term is more more broadly and accurately used to clarify a financial or employment arrangement, with specific legal and tax ramifications. However, esp. when discussed in context, most will understand the term 'contractor' to be referring to a person or company performing construction services.

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A company in any field can be a contractor. For example Dine Contract Catering which states on its website that it is a large contract catering company operating 211 client's catering operations.

Beyond the information on the website I have no knowledge of Dine at all but I'm sure that they have no significant expertise in construction, even if some of their client companies are construction companies.

In contrast the Keir Group are a construction company who do some work under contract but also build homes for sale on their own account and, presumably, have little or no expertise in large scale catering.

The difference between a "construction company" and a "contractor" is that a construction company is a company with expertise and resources suitable for undertaking construction work (like the Keir Group) and a contractor is a company or individual contracted to do certain work for a different company or individual (like Dine Contract Caterers under normal circumstances or the Keir Group when they are doing contract work).

A construction company is often a contractor as much of its work is done under contract and many contractors are construction companies but the terms are by no means synonymous.

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