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The English language is full of words that are both similar in sound and similar in meaning. Many of these words are classified as homophones, but many others don’t quite fit under that label.
The two words continually vs. continuously, while not being exact homophones, sound enough alike to confuse writers. Plus, their meanings are somewhat similar, so it adds a layer of confusion.
But, as is the case with so many other words, once you know the difference, picking the correct word, continually or continuously, is easy.
When to Use Continually
Continually is an adverb. The corresponding adjective is continual. Continually and continual are both used to describe duration, specifically things that recur regularly or frequently and are intermittent with intervals of interruption.
- The employee-training manual is continually being updated.
- The continual bang of thunder during the storm kept me awake.
- There is a continual backup in traffic during rush hour.
The emphasis of continually and continual is on the fact that certain events are recurring and keep happening, but there is a break in between them.
For example, in the above example about the thunderstorm, the noise of the thunder is continual. It keeps happening over and over, and every time there is a long enough break between sounds and I begin to dose off, the sound bangs again.
Similarly, in the third example, there is a continual traffic jam each day during rush hour. After rush hour, the traffic clears until the next day.
When to Use Continuously
Continuously is an adverb. The corresponding adjective is continuous. Continuously and continuous are also used to describe duration, specifically things that are uninterrupted in time, sequence, substance, extent; ceaseless.
- She spoke continuously for 20 minutes and then took questions from the audience.
- This video was shot in one continuous take.
- The baby let out a continuous shriek the entire time I held her.
The emphasis of continuously and continuous is on the fact that certain events are happening without interruption and are ceaseless.
For example, in the above example about the video, the video was shot in one single, continuous take. There was no breaks or stops in the camera.
Similarly, in the third example, the baby shrieked the entire length of the time I held her, with no periods of quietness.
Common Mistakes Using Continual vs. Continuous
The most common mistake involving these two words is using continuous when you really mean continual. For example,
- Continuous interruptions before a performance often means having to warm up all over again.
– should read –
- Continual interruptions before a performance often means having to warm up all over again.
If the interruptions really were continuous there wouldn’t be any time to restart one’s warm up routine because the interruptions would not end until the performance began. The interruptions would not cease until the show started.
Can Continually and Continuously Be Used Interchangeably?
While both words can roughly mean nonstop or ongoing, they emphasize different things and carry different meanings.
It’s best to observe the distinction between these words for clear, precise writing.
Remember the Difference
Is there a good trick to use to quickly tell whether continual or continuous is the correct choice for a given sentence? This simple trick should help you make the decision.
Something is continual (continually) if it is frequent, recurring, recurrent, and intermittent. Continually, recurring, and intermittent all have double consonants in them.
Something is continuous (continuously) if it is steady, sustained, and ceaseless. All of these words contain the letter “S.” There is also a good mnemonic for the word continuous, which ends in the three letters “ous.” Think of this –ous as standing for “one uninterrupted sequence.”
Although these words are similar in their sound and even in their meanings, telling them apart is easy once you’re familiar with their differences.
Continually describes something that is frequently occurring but intermittent.
Continuously describes something that occurs without interruption.
These differences also hold true for the words’ adjective forms, continuous vs. continual.
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