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.
The words continual and continuous are like twins: they both come from continue, but they get mad if you get them confused. Continual means start and stop, while continuous means never-ending.
The word continuous originated in mid-17th century: from Latin continuus ‘uninterrupted’, from continere ‘hang together’ (from con- ‘together with’ + tenere ‘hold’) + -ous. The word continual originated from Middle English: from Old French continuel, from continuer ‘continue’, from Latin continuare, from continuus (see continuous).
Continuous as adjective:
Continuous is used as an adjective which means forming an unbroken whole; without interruption.
The whole performance is enacted in one continuous movement.
Forming a series with no exceptions or reversals is also called continuous.
There are continuous advances in design and production.
Continuous is also used in mathematics (of a function) of which the graph is a smooth unbroken curve, i.e. one such that as the value of x approaches any given value a, the value of f(x) approaches that of f(a) as a limit.
Continual as adjective:
Continual is also an adjective in English language where it means forming a sequence in which the same action or event is repeated frequently.
His plane went down after continual attacks.
Having no interruptions in something is called continual.
Some patients need continual safeguarding.
Based on these findings, aboriginal Australians would represent one of the oldest continuous populations outside Africa. [Washington Post]
One of the advantages of not having an insurance industry with hundreds of years of continuous history is that you get to make things up as you go along. [Financial Times]
That furious brown water, swirling, foaming, leaping and thundering, represented for Romantics the continuous force of thought. [More Intelligent Life]
His office reported continual talks with the Department of State on the orphans’ plight. [Post-Gazette]
Now he also understands what it was like for a younger brother to continually get his head shoved into a spiky hedge by a ruthless older sibling. [Press.co.nz]
After six years of continual plot twists, flashbacks and flash forwards, fans of the mysterious drama “Lost” will begin the show’s final season. [The Daily Athenaeum]
Continuous or continual:
Things that are unceasing or exist without interruption are continuous. For example, the flow of a river, the motion of the planets around the sun, and the heartbeat of a healthy human are continuous because they never pause. Things that occur frequently or recur intermittently are continual. The continual action doesn’t happen ceaselessly, but it does happen regularly. For example, phone calls to a busy office and departures from a bus station are continual because they happen regularly but not in an uninterrupted stream.
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