Continual vs. Continuous: Know Which Word to Use

The words continual and continuous are very similar in terms of how they sound when spoken, how they are spelled and what they mean. However, even though these words have very similar definitions, they don't mean exactly the same thing. Get the information you need to know which word to use when faced with choosing between continual vs. continuous.

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Continual vs. Continuous: Similarities and Differences

The words continual and continuous are both adjective forms of the verb continue. The definitions of these words do overlap but do not mean the same thing.

Continue Definition: Common Meaning

The verb continue means to occur on an ongoing basis or to persist. It can also refer to moving forward with or returning to an activity after it has been discontinued. This basic definition accurately describes the core meaning of both continuous and continual.

How Do Continual and Continuous Differ?

The difference between continual and continuous lies with whether the action occurs in a non-stop fashion or if it is something that stops and then starts again.

  • continual - Something that is continual starts and stops. There are breaks between occurrences.
  • continuous - A continuous action never stops. It takes place on an ongoing basis

Adverb Forms: Continually vs. Continuously

This same difference applies when you consider continuously vs. continually, which are adverb forms of the word continue.

  • continually - Something that occurs continually is ongoing; it does not end.
  • continuously - An action that takes place continuously happens frequently but is not constant.

Continual vs. Continuous: Shades of Meaning

Because continuous and continual are so similar, it's easy to get them mixed up. Review the following examples of how using these words impacts what a sentence means. This can help illustrate why it's so important to choose the right word.

Describing Rain

It would be correct to describe Seattle as a city that experiences continual rain (not continuous rain).

  • A location characterized by continual rain is a place that is very rainy. It rains very often, but there are times that rain is not falling. That correctly describes Seattle.
  • Saying that a place experiences continuous rain would mean that it is always raining. The rain would never stop, even for a short period of time.
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Human Breathing

Under ordinary circumstances, human beings breathe continually. People have to breathe in order to survive. With the exceptions of deliberately holding one's breath or a medical condition that keeps a person from being able to breathe on their own, a person's breathing does not stop and start.

  • It is correct to say that people must breathe continuously in order to survive.
  • If you say that someone breathes continually, it would mean that they were only breathing intermittently. Medical intervention would be required.

HVAC Operation

When you set a central air conditioner or heating system to maintain a certain temperature, you are setting it up to run for continual (not continuous) operation.

  • The unit will automatically turn on as needed to reach the desired temperature, then turn off once the temperature is reached. This is a continual operation.
  • If the system was set for continuous operation, it would run all the time without stopping regardless of the air temperature.

Snacking Frequency

Should you say that a person has a continuous snacking habit or a continual one? It depends on what the person does!

  • A person who snacks continuously while watching television will continue to eat throughout the entire time he or she is viewing a TV program.
  • An individual who continually snacks while watching TV always (or almost always) gets a snack while viewing a show, but doesn't eat the entire time.

Business Improvement

Would it be correct to describe a business as seeking continuous improvement or continual improvement? Are its leaders always seeking to improve, or do they take breaks from trying to get better?

  • Business leaders that seek continuous improvement are always seeking to do things better. The focus is always on improving, without interruption.
  • Company leaders who say they want continual improvement are saying they do want to get better, but are fine with taking breaks from striving to improve.
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Other Similar Words

There are a few other words that could easily be confused with continual vs. continuous.

  • continued - The word continued is the past tense form of the verb continue. This would only be used for something that has happened but has now stopped. (The questioning continued for hours.)
  • continues - The term continues is the third person form of the verb continue. It refers to an ongoing action, expressed via third-person point of view. (He continues to search for the perfect vacation spot.)
  • continuing - The word continuing is the present participle form of continue. It refers to something that is happening now and is continuing into the future. (The continuing disagreement between my brother and sister is causing family discord.)
  • constant - The word constant is an adjective that can be defined as something that continues on an ongoing basis. While this is not the only meaning of the word constant, this term can be used as a synonym for continuous.
  • contiguous - The word contiguous sounds somewhat similar to the word continuous, but its meaning is unrelated. This adjective describes places or objects that are in direct contact with each other and share a common border.

Continual and Continuous Learning

Continuous vs. continual and continuously vs. continually aren't the only similar words that are hard to distinguish between in the English language. Now that you know when to use these words correctly, and how your meaning could be impacted if you don't, take the time to further explore the differences between words that may sound like synonyms but aren't. Start by reviewing some of the most commonly confused words to verify that you're using those terms correctly. Next, discover the differences between other similar words such as nauseous vs. nauseated. Then, explore more confusing time debates with began vs. begun.