Continuously versus Continually

Maybe it’s a style and usage hang-up, but I don’t see “continuous” and “continual” as the same word. Sure, they’re synonyms of one another, but last night while watching Super Nanny (I know) I heard Jo use “continuously” when I thought “continually” sounded more correct to my ear.

To be clear, I’ve used both words in both written and spoken settings, but I can’t quite put my finger on a delineation for their usage. Maybe “continual” as an agent/modifier/adverb by a group or a thing and “continuous” are more personal?

I really don’t know. Leave a comment (especially English majors).

Main Entry: con·tin·u·al
Pronunciation: k&n-‘tin-yü-&l, -y&l
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French continuel, from Latin continuus continuous
1 : continuing indefinitely in time without interruption [continual fear]
2 : recurring in steady usually rapid succession [a history of continual invasions]
– con·tin·u·al·ly adverb

Main Entry: con·tin·u·ous
Pronunciation: k&n-‘tin-yü-&s
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin continuus, from continEre to hold together — more at CONTAIN
1 : marked by uninterrupted extension in space, time, or sequence
2 of a function : having the property that the absolute value of the numerical difference between the value at a given point and the value at any point in a neighborhood of the given point can be made as close to zero as desired by choosing the neighborhood small enough

They share a root but am I way off base for hearing/using them differently?

2 thoughts on “Continuously versus Continually

  1. Andrew Leal says:

    As an English major, I definitely feel you’re not off base. The key difference in most common usage, though this may have been eroded somewhat, lies in what’s being described, a recurring event, or just an endless one. I.e., continually suffering from amnesia, suggests a recurring ailment, something which has happened multiple times (the second dictionary definition of “continually” is generally more common in writing, though perhaps not so in, say, physics and so on). In contrast, continuosly suffering, which sound awkward as I type it, would imply en elongated constant state, no interruptions, never changing, stretched out. A continual annoyance would be a relative who pops in unannounced every week to borrow money. A continuous annoyance would be a relative who moves into your house and camps in your bedroom and follows you to work. Not the best examples, I know, but that’s my take on it.

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