Continual vs. Continuous – Usage, Difference & Examples

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Words in the English language that are similar in their meaning and spelling can be confusing, especially to non-native speakers. Continual and continuous are perfect examples of this. They share the same root word, contain, but are used in different ways to explain an action or movement.

It’s essential to use these words correctly to avoid confusion. Below, we’ve explained the different definitions of continual and continuous and provided examples so their meanings are clear and easy to use in your own speech and writing.

What’s the Difference Between Continual and Continuous?

Continual vs. Continuous Usage Difference Examples

The words have not always been differentiated and are still often wrongly used interchangeably despite their differences. But both provide very distinct usage, and knowing these differences is essential to a clear and concise message.

Continual vs. Continuous Ngram
Continual and continuous usage trend.

Continual is used to describe frequent or recurring movements or situations. Continuous describes ceaseless or never-ending movements or situations.

Let’s take a closer look at how to properly use each.

How to Use Continual

Things that occur frequently or recur intermittently are continual. A continual action doesn’t happen ceaselessly, but it does happen regularly. For example, phone calls to a busy office and departures from a bus station are continual because they happen regularly but not in an uninterrupted stream.

For example:

  • Their office was involved in continual talks with the university throughout the year pertaining to scholarship opportunities.
  • My son’s hair grows so quickly we have set up a series of continual appointments with the local barber.
  • After 12 seasons of continually amusing millions of views, the popular television series will be winding up its final season.

Origin of Continual

Once meaning to “proceed without interruption or cessation” in the early 14th century, continual meant then what continuous means now. It derives from the Old French word continuel from the 12th century and the Latin continuus, meaning “joining, connecting, or following one after another.”

Its meaning did not change until the 1640s with the introduction of the variation, continuous.

How to Use Continuous

Continual vs. Continuous Usage Difference Examples 1

Things that are unceasing or exist without interruption are continuous. For example, the flow of a river, the motion of the planets around the sun, and the heartbeat of a healthy human are continuous because they never pause.

For example:

  • Archaeological findings continue to strongly support the theory that one of the oldest continuous populations in the world originated in the Nile River Valley.
  • Not having had a continuous history of academic success, the institution decided to take a new approach to provide the best educational opportunities possible.
  • Her continuous force of thought while she lived helped produce some of the best literature of the 19th century.

Origin of Continuous

Continuous did not enter into the English language until the mid-17th century. It means “characterized by continuity, without disconnection or interruption.” It derives from the Old French continueus, directly from the Latin continuus.

Let’s Review

Although continual once meant the same as the modern-day use of continuous, both words infer different meanings in today’s day and age.

Continual should be used when you want to express that something happens regularly but intermittently, meaning it isn’t a ceaseless action but rather is interrupted no matter how frequently it may occur.

Continuous is used to explain something that is occurring without interruption and is unceasing.