Ever since the contourite revolution of the 1960s the distinction between contourites, turbidites and hemipelagites in modern and ancient deepwater systems has been controversial. This is partly because: (a) the processes themselves show a degree of overlap as part of a continuum, so that the deposit characteristics also overlap; (b) the three facies types commonly occur within interbedded sequences of continental margin deposits; and (c) much erroneous and misleading material has been published over the past five decades. However, the nature of these end-member processes and their physical parameters are becoming much better known, and the occurrence, architecture and seismic attributes are now well established. Good progress has also been made in recognising differences between end-member facies in terms of their sedimentary structures, facies sequences, ichnofacies, sediment textures, composition and microfabric. These characteristics can be summarised in terms of standard facies models, and the variations from these models that are typically encountered in natural systems. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that clear distinction is not always possible on the basis of sedimentary characteristics alone, and that uncertainties should be highlighted in any interpretation. Controversy remains and clearly focused new research is much needed.