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Let's talk about constancy

Rosie Right

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Some usage controversies are perennial. A reader has called Rosie's attention to the frequent confusion between continuous and continual. At first, Rosie thought she could deal with this subject by quoting The Random House Handbook, Second Edition, which tells us simply: "Continual means recurring at intervals; Continuous means uninterrupted."

But when we look at Webster's Dictionary of American Usage, the clouds begin to gather. The editors of that fascinating, if somewhat permissive, book do not agree at all. The entry begins:

"As far as we can tell, the first person to draw a distinction between continual and continuous was Elizabeth Jane Whately, in her book 'A Collection of English Synonyms,' published ... in 1851.

"'A continuous action is one which is uninterrupted and goes on unceasingly as long as it lasts, though that time may be longer or shorter. Continual is that which is constantly renewed and recurring, though it may be interrupted as frequently as it is renewed.'

"Miss Whately's distinction has been repeated with some frequency since; our files hold examples from about 50 handbooks and usage guides published between the turn of the century and 1986...

"You may well wonder why this distinction needs such frequent repeating. Margaret M. Bryant, writing in Word Study (May 1956) seems to have found the reason:

"'As explicit as all handbooks for writing are, they have not succeeded in establishing a definite difference in continual and continuous in the minds of many.'

"The reasons ... are historical. Continual is the older word, dating from the 14th century." The definition given first in the OED encompasses both senses. Webster's then quotes some elegant writers, including Jane Austen, whose "Mansfield Park" contains the sentences "What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance."

Webster's summarizes: "many factors enter into the choice between continual and continuous ... continuous is the usual word when the application is to physical continuation, continuation in space; nobody uses continual in this way ... because it has a much broader spectrum of application continuous is the more common word. Yet, continual has been used since the 14th century in its primary sense of 'continuing indefinitely in time without interruption' and is still used in that sense."

Ah, me! Rosie intends to stick to the simple distinction quoted from the Random House Handbook. Her excuse: She wants to keep the attention of her careful readers and those readers, being used to the distinction, might be distracted if she began violating the "rule" found in most handbooks today.

A friend has sent Rosie the following Mondegreen derived from a child's understanding of the Lord's prayer: "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us some e-mail ..." Amen.

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), letter (1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220), fax (355-9089) or e-mail (rright@richmond.infi.net)

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