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Continuously vs. Continually—What’s the Difference?

The adverbs continuously and continually (and their corresponding adjectives, continuous and continual) are words that are confused easily and often. Continuously describes an action that happens without ceasing. Continually, on the other hand, describes an action that recurs frequently or regularly.

The confusion about whether to use continually or continuously is understandable, because both words share the same Latin root, continuare, meaning “to join together or connect.” Only the endings of the words are different, and over time, the two words have evolved with subtly distinct meanings.

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Define continuously: things that recur nonstop

The most common mistake people make when using these words is to ascribe an action with unintended frequency by using continuously where continually is more appropriate. This results in an exaggeration that will not escape the notice of an editor.

My grandmother corrects my grammar continuously.

Does she? We all have relatives who can be exasperating at times, but is it possible for your grandmother to correct you continuously? Unless your grandmother is capable of delivering rapid-fire corrections at you with incessant, Terminator-like determination, continual is the word you need here.

My grandmother corrects my grammar continually.

Let’s try another example.

It is hard to get a word in edgewise with her because she talks continuously.

Talking is an action that is accomplished by human beings, and perhaps parrots. For both, it is almost impossible to do it continuously. I had an aunt who came close; she drew in big gasps between anecdotes so she could continue talking without getting light-headed. But unless a speaker’s “gift of the gab” can match my Aunt Kay’s, chances are they will occasionally pause for breath and await your responses.

It is hard to get a word in edgewise with her because she talks continually.

If your aim is to underscore the fact that a speaker talked for a period of time in the broader sense before a large-scale interruption occurred, that can merit the word continuously.

Professor Smith lectured continuously for twenty minutes, then had a question-and-answer period.

Define continually: things that recur frequently

It is quite easy to decide whether to use continuously or continually if you remember to ask yourself, “Did the action ever stop?” Some things do happen continuously and others simply don’t. A clock can tick continuously, and a heart can beat continuously. These actions are automatic. But can lightning strike continuously, for example?

I was too frightened to sleep because lightning struck continuously during the night.

Not only would that be frightening, it would be apocalyptic. You would awaken to a charred landscape that would be quite sobering to behold. Luckily, Mother Nature doesn’t assault us with continuous lightning. On a stormy night, however, it could be continual; that is, it could be happening often and regularly.

I was too frightened to sleep because lightning struck continually during the night.

Continuous or continual in historical contexts

Continuously may work best when you are writing about a phenomenon that persists over a long period of time in an anthropological, historical, or geological sense. Take this sentence, for example:

Because it has been used continually for almost two thousand years, Rome’s Pantheon is well preserved.

The concept here is that buildings that never lapse into disuse are repaired and generally given the attention due to them. While it is not incorrect to say that the Pantheon was used continually (i.e., frequently, in the sense of “it’s amazing how Rome never sleeps”) over the last two thousand or so years, the fact that its use was never interrupted by a period of disuse needs to be highlighted.

Because it has been used continuously for almost two thousand years, Rome’s Pantheon is well preserved.

Now that you have untangled continuously and continually, you might want to read about other commonly confused English words.

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