Continually vs. Continuously – Grammar Blog


Writers and speakers of English use the verb continue to communicate the idea of something’s going or keeping on, as in “We hope the good weather continues.

The concept of the English word continue comes from the Latin root continuāre, meaning “to join together or connect, to make all one.”

We further understand the idea of continuing in nouns such as continuer and continuation. The line starts to blur, however, when we shift to adjectives and adverbs.

Along the way, English gave us the adjective-adverb pairs of continual-continually and continuous-continuously. The concept of “continue” between them carries a distinction.

If something is continual, it is repeated with occasional pauses, as in Erik worked on the cuckoo clock continually from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., stopping only for a short lunch.

If something is continuous, it is constant without interruption in unbroken time, as in Erik worked on the cuckoo clock continuously from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., not even pausing for lunch.

While the difference between continually and continuously may have stayed consistent among language purists, it has become less defined in general use in recent years. One factor may be the greater inclusion of the words as synonyms in many dictionaries. They are also often used interchangeably in everyday speech.

It’s possible that the merging of the words will persist, potentially at the expense of distinguishing constant, uninterrupted action from frequent but intermittent activity.

For those of us wishing to uphold clear and nuanced communication for more-precise expression, we’ll reinforce the difference here with the aim of keeping it active.

Closer Inspection of Continually vs. Continuously

Understanding that constant action is continuous and recurring action is continual, consider whether the following sentence pairs are concise:

Hank talks continuously whenever he gets on the subject of baseball.
Some directors like to film a scene continually rather than in different shots.

In the story of Noah and the ark, it rained continuously for forty days and forty nights.
Chinatsu plans to work continually until she saves enough money to retire.

In the first pair of sentences, we’ll first want to ask ourselves if a person can talk without stopping at all. Some of us might believe we know someone who can—in theory, at least—but in real time even a chatty person will need to pause for breath or to listen to someone else for a couple of seconds. Continually would be the more accurate adverb.

Concerning the movie directors, we’re discussing a scene shot in one long, uninterrupted take, so the better word would be continuously.

The second set of sentences applies the two words correctly. In the story of Noah, the rain fell without ceasing, meaning it did so continuously. We can also deduce that Chinatsu will have moments when she is not working before her retirement; she therefore will apply her efforts continually.

Continually vs. Continuously: A Matter of Context

Sometimes the “continue” meaning you wish to convey may depend on a broader framework, particularly when it involves spatial components such as time. Consider for example the following sentence:

The professor gave her lecture continuously for thirty minutes before welcoming the students’ questions.

Here we understand that the professor likely paused from speaking (i.e., spoke continually), but the lecture itself continued without stopping for thirty minutes. People will probably still understand us if we use continually, but including continuously would show we are aware of the nuances of linguistic precision.

Continually vs. Continuously: Extra Ways to Remember

As we’ve discussed, identifying the difference between intermittent (continual) and constant (continuous) action is one way to help us use the right word. Some other techniques can assist with our recall as well, such as remembering that:

continuous ends in o u s: one uninterrupted sequence.
continually has double consonants (ll), reminding us it is recurring and intermittent.

 

Pop Quiz

Let’s review your mastery of the difference between continually and continuously. Choose the correct word according to its context in each sentence.

1. The grandfather clock ticked [continually / continuously] in the family room.

2. The football game we were watching was [continually / continuously] interrupted by the news updates.

3. The powerful storm struck the county [continually / continuously] with different lightning strikes.

4. The weather has been so cold that we’ve had to [continually / continuously] jump the battery to start the car.

5. The hair on our head [continually / continuously] grows.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The grandfather clock ticked continuously in the family room.

2. The football game we were watching was continually interrupted by the news updates.

3. The powerful storm struck the county continually with different lightning strikes.

4. The weather has been so cold that we’ve had to continually jump the battery to start the car.

5. The hair on our head continuously grows.

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