Written by Joanna Kimmerly-Smith
Continual: An adjective meaning of regular or frequent occurrence (e.g., "Anita made 'continual' trips to the bathroom to wash her hands").
Continuous: An adjective that means without stopping or interruption (e.g., "The 'continuous' motion of the spinning top mesmerized the toddler").
A Closer Look
Have you ever found yourself wondering how to use "continual" vs. "continuous" (or the closely related adverbs "continually" vs. "continuously") in a sentence? Perhaps you're writing a fiction manuscript (did Rufus look at his watch "continuously" or "continually"?) or describing a scientific procedure (did you stir the solution "continually" or "continuously" for five minutes?). The two words have similar meanings, both originating from the root word "continue," so they're often confused.
Here's a sentence that uses both words correctly: "To keep his watch running 'continuously,' he 'continually' had to wind it."
Let's take a look at some more examples and tips to demonstrate the difference between "continual" vs. "continuous" so you can use the correct term confidently every time.
When to Use "Continual"
If something happens once, happens again after a period of time has elapsed, and keeps happening intermittently, frequently, or repeatedly, you can use "continual" to describe it. In other words, if something is "continual," it happens so often that you feel as if it will never end, but there are actually breaks in between each occurrence. For example:
- Trips to the library were a "continual" occurrence for Rufus.
- I can't stand the "continual" interruptions from your cell phone. This library is supposed to be quiet, but your phone keeps ringing!
- You are "continually" late for band practice. Try to get here on time next week.
Your takeaway: If you're referring to frequently occurring events (with a break in between each one), use "continual(ly)."
When to Use "Continuous"
"Continuous" means that there is no interruption from beginning to end; it describes a seamless motion/progression or an unending quality. Importantly, if something is "continuous," nothing interrupts it. It can be used to describe a sight, a sound, or an abstract thing. For example:
- The school buses were parked in front of the middle school in a "continuous" line of yellow.
- The "continuous" patter of the rain on the rooftops lulled the infant into a deep slumber.
- It is my personal goal to watch the extended editions of all the Lord of the Rings films "continuously," without any interruptions.
Your takeaway: If you're referring to something that occurs without interruption, use "continuous(ly)."
Use "Continual" vs. "Continuous" Correctly Every Time
If etymology is your area of expertise, you'll probably remember that "-al" is a suffix meaning "relating to" and that "-ous" is a suffix meaning "full of": hence, "continual" relates to continuity (i.e., it seems to happen all the time), while "continuous" is full of continuity (i.e., there is no interruption from beginning to end).
Alternately, you can have your writing proofread to help clear up any confusion about "continual" vs. "continuous." Submit your writing to the professionals at Scribendi for a thorough proofread. If you do so "continually," your writing will "continuously" improve.
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Joanna's passion for English literature (proven by her M.A. thesis on Jane Austen) is matched by her passion to help others with their writing (shown by her role as an in-house editor with Scribendi). She enjoys lively discussions about plot, character, and nerdy TV shows with her husband, and she loves singing almost as much as she loves reading. Isn't music another language after all?