The correct use of continually and continually in sentences

Word play: continually or continuously?

Posted: 15th Sep 2014

DO YOU EVER write a sentence and hesitate over a word? It’s a word you know you know, but somehow when it’s written down it doesn’t look quite right. You can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong with your sentence. So you leave it as it is, and move on.

Sometimes a word will seem correct because it appears similar to another word. In fact, no spell checker will pick up your error, because you have, in fact, correctly spelled a word. It’s just not the word you were after! Take the following example:

Jess was annoyed because her little brother continuously interrupted while she worked.

We understand perfectly the meaning of the sentence: Jess’s patience is being tested by her brother, who won’t leave her alone. But does the word continuously properly belong in this sentence? Would the word continually work better?

First there is the similarity between these two adverbs to contend with. Continually and continuously each derive from an adjective that has the same root – continue. Continue is an intransitive verb, meaning ‘to maintain a condition or course’.

Continuously is defined under continuous in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as ‘uninterrupted’. Continually however, is listed as ‘constantly or frequently recurring; always happening’. They are accompanied by a usage note.

Oxford asserts that ‘continual’ means to happen frequently but ‘with breaks in between each occurrence’. ‘Continuous’ and its uninterrupted interpretation is taken as truly incessant. So the example above should in fact read:

Jess was annoyed because her little brother continually interrupted while she worked.

This is because at some point Jess will stop at her task, forcing a break. The use of the word ‘constant’ above for exaggerated effect is perhaps what is actually confusing the sentence. As a literary device, Jess feels as though her brother constantly interrupts, but this is not really true.