Today we’re talking about whether to select continually or continuously, two words that appear to mean the same thing, but actually do not.
Sometimes two words that look almost identical aren’t.
Over at Newsblues, a paid broadcast journalism insider website, Mrs. B writes a daily grammar column and recently complained about an anchor who promised “continuous coverage” of a story.
The anchor didn’t mean continuous. He or she meant continual.
Like I said, they do look alike and most people probably wouldn’t have known the difference.
Continuously means constant, uninterrupted. The Online Etymology Dictionary says continuous entered our language in the 1640s from the French continueus or directly from the Latin continuus, meaning “uninterrupted, hanging together.”
Continually, on the other hand, means at regular intervals or frequently repeated. Some degree of interruption is implied. The OED says this word came into our language from the Old French continuel in the early 14th century.
The distinction may seem minor, but it’s important if you’re interested in being as precise as possible.
Think, for example, about the clichéd “dark and stormy night.” Imagine talking about the sound of it disturbing your sleep. If you referred to the thunder as “continuous,” you’d be talking about an eight-hour long rumbling that didn’t stop for the entire time.
That definitely sounds like a nightmare to me.
But “continual” thunder during the overnight hours would mean thunder would be happening throughout the night, but not one long uninterrupted rumble.
Some authorities will suggest that both can be used to mean “without interruption,” but we have to keep in mind that sometimes dictionaries will provide definitions of words that have come to be used incorrectly so the dictionary’s readers can decipher what someone might have meant.
It’s always better, whenever possible, to use the most precise word.