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‘Continuously’ Versus ‘Continually’

Stick with me. A beauty queen can help you remember the difference between "continuously" and "continually."

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Continuously: something nonstop.

Continually: something that happens in a frequent, ongoing way.

Last week, I had to remind myself of the difference between the words “continuously” and “continually” when I was writing about the word “chronic” because it has the same root as the word “crony.”

Is a chronic disease something that is with you continuously or continually? There is a difference even though the two words come from the same root.

Continuously

Something that happens continuously happens all the time—nonstop. If a piece of electrical equipment in your house is making a nonstop buzzing sound, and you can’t find it, you can tell an electrician that something is continuously buzzing.

Continually

On the other hand, something that happens regularly, but not all the time, happens continually. For example, if you have a smoke alarm that goes off at random times every day, when you tear it off the wall and throw it away, you can tell the person you hire to patch the drywall that the alarm was going off continually. (Just be sure to replace it. Smoke alarms are important.)

‘Continuous’ or ‘continual’?

If you have a chronic disease, is it something that affects you continuously or continually? Well, maybe it’s both. For example, many type I diabetics have to give themselves shots multiple times a day. They are continually giving themselves shots. Multiple times a day.

But some diabetics use insulin pumps instead that deliver insulin all the time (although the amount can vary throughout the day). They’re getting insulin continuously. Nonstop.

I think the real answer is that because the underlying disease is always there, the disease is continuously with people. It’s something that continuously affects them all the time.

The ‘-ous’ suffix will help you remember

Now, how can you (and I) remember the difference between these two words that sound so similar and have such similar meanings?

I’m going to think of something that happens continuously as being a state. Something that “is.”  And the “-ous” suffix is the key. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “abounding in something, being full of something, characterized by something.” 

You can see it in other words that end with “-ous” that also describe a state or describe being full of something: “pompous,” “glamorous,” “courageous,” “dangerous,” and “hideous.” 

All those “-ous” words describe the being of something. Someone is pompous. Someone is glamorous. Someone is courageous. An activity is dangerous. A particular wallpaper is hideous. You can argue the nuances, but none of those things really change. They always are. Just like something continuous is always with you or always happening.

So when I’m trying to remember the difference between “continuous” and “continual,” I’m going to think of a glamorous woman wearing an insulin pump to get her continuous supply of insulin, and I was inspired by Sierra Sandison, Miss Idaho 2014, who made news by proudly and visibly wearing her insulin pump during the competition.

Glamorous, courageous, and continuous.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.