Word Confusion: Continual versus Continuous

Posted March 14, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 22 August 2017

This wasn’t an error I came across, but a question I had for myself. Naturally, I had to explore it.

While continuous and continual are fairly similar — they both roughly mean without interruption, its the finer distinctions that separate them.

Continual is frequent events but with intervals in between.

Continuous can refer to space and time and is used more frequently.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Continual Continuous
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

Man milking a cow

“Milking a Cow in the Past” by and uploaded by Saintswithin at English Wikipedia is in the public domain and was transferred to Wikimedia Commons

While milking by hand is old-fashioned, cows still need to be milked at continual intervals.

A nightlit city of Dubai

“City of Dubai at Night” by the NASA Expedition 20 crew and is from the NASA Earth Observatory. It is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Vapor lights form a continuous line along the coastline.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective Adjective
Frequently recurring

Always happening

  • Having no interruptions
Forming an unbroken whole

Without interruption

  • Forming a series with no exceptions or reversals
  • [Mathematics; of a function] Of which the graph is a smooth unbroken curve, i.e., one such that as the value of χ approaches any given value a, the value of f(χ) approaches that of f(a) as a limit

[Grammar] Another term that describes the progressive verb

His plane went down after continual attacks.

Some patients need continual safeguarding.

Service was disrupted with continual breakdowns.

The country has been in a continual state of war since it began fighting for its independence.

The continual interruptions by the student were annoying the teacher.

The whole performance is enacted in one continuous movement.

There are continuous advances in design and production.

The present continuous is an indicative verb that emphasizes the continuing or progressive nature of an incomplete act, event, or condition.

A continuous function with a continuous inverse function is called a homeomorphism.

The development forms a continuous line all around the bay.

Adjective: quasi-continual, uncontinual

Adverb: continually, quasi-continually, uncontinually

Noun: continuality, continualness

Adjective: noncontinuous

Adverb: continuously, noncontinuously

Noun: continuousness, noncontinuousness

History of the Word:
Middle English from the Old French continuel, from continuer meaning continue, which is from the Latin continuare, which is itself from continuus. Mid 17th century from the Latin continuus meaning uninterrupted, which is from continere meaning hang together (from con- (together with) + tenere (hold) + -ous.

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C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Pinterest Photo Credits

The Hart Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida, is Excel23‘s own work under the CC0 license, via Wikimedia Commons, and Vintage Mickey Mouse Manual-Wind Alarm Clock By Bradley Time by France1978 is under the CC BY-SA license, via VisualHunt.