Continuous vs. Continual

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Many writers use continuous and continual as if they were exact synonyms, but my English teachers taught their students to distinguish between them.

Both adjectives describe duration.

Continuous indicates duration without interruption.
Ex. The continuous humming of the fluorescent lights gave him a headache.

Continual indicates duration that continues over a long period of time, but with intervals of interruption.
Ex. The continual street repair disrupted traffic for nearly two years.

The adverbs continuously and continually preserve the same distinction:
Ex. The child screamed continuously as long as its mother was on the telephone.
In this part of the country it rains continually during April.

Here are some quotations from newspapers that illustrate that usage:

… gym membership or a magazine subscription. Some will be direct debits and standing orders, but others will be “continuous payment authorities” (also called recurring payment authorities, recurring transactions or recurring payments … (www.theguardian.com)

… toward excellence. However, many firms from the smallest to the largest fail to develop and maintain an attitude of continuous improvement. … (www.chicagotribune.com)

… Uefa’s numerical record of events he almost fails to register, a ghost player draped in his own invisibility cloak of continual peripheral motion. Despite all of this, Milner has still managed to remain a largely uncontested select … (www.theguardian.com)

… modern art found a way of domesticating Abraham’s powerful idol-smashing instincts by allowing itself to be continually driven by the iconoclastic urge. Or rather, to be driven by iconoclasm simply for its own sake. It is … (www.theguardian.com)

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21 thoughts on “Continuous vs. Continual”

  1. Until now, I think I fell into the “exact synonym” group of writers.

    As a mnemonic: continuAL ~ intervAL, while continuoUS ~ unbroken like a trUSs.

  2. Thank you for this! Continual(ly) vs. continuous(ly) is one of my pet distinctions, and one that I try to get my fellow writers/translators to abide by. Of course, many fairly official sources no longer demand the distinction, but I think it preserves the richness and integrity of the language to keep it!

  3. Mohamed,
    Both continuing and continued are forms of the verb to continue.

    Continuing (present participle); continued (simple past and past participle forms).
    Ex. This king is continuing the work of his father.
    The construction continued for twenty years.
    In all my dealings, I have continued to obey the law.

  4. Maeve,

    What I meant is the use of continuing/continued as adjectives and not verbs. e.g. “I look forward to your continuing/continued support.” I am not sure what it is, but I believe there must be a slight difference in their meanings here.
    Thanks for your feedback.

  5. Mohamed,
    I’m not sure I know how to formulate a rule for this one.

    Continuing, as a present participle, implies an action that is going on in the present.

    Universities have Departments of Continuing Education, but they often ask their contributors for their continued support.

    As an adjective for “support,” continuing and continued seem to be used interchangeably.

    On the other hand, one speaks of a continuing rain, but not a continued rain; a continuing antagonism, but not a continued antagonism.

    It may be that continued support is one of those expressions that has become acceptable by wide use.

  6. I think you use ‘continued’ when you are not sure wheather the action will happen today or tomorrow, but it was there until yesterday. You use ‘continuing’ when you know it’s going on right now and most likely will be happening the next day. It’s just an opinion of mine. I am no way an expert in grammer.

  7. Our tip for remembering the difference is this:

    “Continuous” sounds like “Contiguous,” which means touching or adjacent, so we use “continuous” for actions that are “touching,” i.e., incessant, without break. If that is not the word we need, we use “continual.”

  8. Fine about continuous vs. continual, however, I take exception with this example:

    The child screamed continuously as long as its mother was on the telephone.

    Generally, we don’t refer to a person as an “it.” This reads much better as:

    The child screamed continuously as long as his mother was on the telephone.

  9. Ah well. For an example, picking a sex would have been fine.

    The publication I work for alternates sexes, which seems to disturb some people, but I, too, hate he/she.

  10. There is another similar word ‚Äúcontagious” which means communicable, transmittable. It is generally used in context of spreading of diseases or behaviours -like smile

  11. Can somebody help me understand the difference between “perennial” and “perpetual”. These words also used in context of continuity of a process or action.

  12. Perennial essentially means “every year.” The “ennial” part means year. Flowers that are perennials flower every year. So the “perennial favorite” or the “perennial problem” essentially means “every time it comes up.” It isn’t necessarily a year in common usage.

    Perpetual means always, continuously, without stop, forever. The perpetual motion machine is one that is forever in motion. Perpetual care for a gravesite means that the care will always be given, “in perpetuity,” as in forever.

    Perpetual and continuous are not the same, though, because perpetual suggests that there will never be an end, whereas something can be continous or continual for a while, but you’d expect it to stop some time.

  13. Such PC-ness! Note that a child is an ‘it’, it’s actually ‘neuter’ in German for example. I take exception to people who consider children as persons.

    I suggest that anyone who can’t live with he or she use ‘s/he’, it’s shorter and neater than writing ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’. And it puts women first :)))

  14. Thank’s for that! I studied those words but came to the same conclusion you mentioned in the beginning. Even so, I felt there must be a difference! Now I know. I will watch when using those words!

  15. In examples, using “he/she,” “he or she,” or “s/he” when the sex of the antecedent would be known to the speaker is irresponsible. The same applies to throwing out one facet of grammar for subject-verb agreement, e.g., using “it” to refer to a person. This hypercorrection creates unnecessary grammatical inconsistency.

    In my opinion, an example should be two things: grammatical and able to exist outside the context of a grammar rulebook.

    “The child screamed continuously as long as its mother was on the telephone,”

    to preserve subject-verb agreement, subject-pronoun agreement, and the (misguided) sexual ambiguity, could be written:

    “The children screamed continuously as long as their mother was on the phone.”

    Obviously using either “he” or “she”, but not “he or she,” would be perfectly fine as well. If I am wrong and there is a rule stating an example must have a singular subject of ambiguous sex, then I’m sorry; that is an incredibly stupid rule.

    Correct use of punctuation and grammar in quotes and attributions is exemplified below.

    “Hey Mr./Mrs. Baker,” the student said. He or she saw his or her teacher was angry, so explained, “Sorry, I’m late. I had to bring my sibling to his or her school, and he or she did not want to wake up this morning.”

    “You don’t need to worry about it,” Mr./Mrs. Baker told him or her, and jokingly added, “unless he or she was late, too.”

  16. A perennial flower is, in fact “one which, if it had lived, would have flowered year after year”

  17. Nathan – actually, “their” (not there or theyre) has come into use to avoid having to choose between he or she. However this does not mean it is grammatically correct. While accepted, it is ambiguous and an incorrect use of the word. Also, one should not use “his or her” or “he or she” within the sentence – one should choose the gender of the determined subject, speaker, etc., and then use the appropriate word.

  18. Speaking of “exact synonyms”, please don’t use the gnarly [construct/phrase] “period of time”. It’s either ‘period’ OR ‘time’, but not as a joint descriptive item. Period refers to Time, which is the inverse of frequency, which is in turn defined as the inverse of the period (periodicity). They are the same thing. They are synonyms. There are no such things as “periods of space” or “periods of height” or “periods of weight”.
    “The whole ordeal lasted a short period”.
    “They had known each other for a long time”.

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