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Continually vs. continuously

Continually and continuously are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Continually refers to an action that happens repeatedly but with interruptions; for example, “my dog continually wags her tail” means that my dog often wags her tail. An action that happens continuously never stops; accordingly, “my dog continuously wags her tail” means that whether my dog is sleeping, eating, walking, or any other activity, her tail is wagging. Since continuous wagging is physically impossible (or would, at least, require some kind of veterinary intervention), the use of continuous in this sentence makes the statement factually incorrect.
In most cases, when people use continuously, continually is the more appropriate and accurate adverb. For example, “it rained continuously in Victoria all last winter” is an exaggeration that may express the frustration of living through a wet Victorian winter, but unless the rain actually never stopped during the entire winter, the sentence isn’t accurate. “It rained continually in Victoria last winter” informs the reader that it rained heavily during the winter season.

If you have any questions about this writing tip, please contact the Writing Centre.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator 

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