These two words are not synonymous. Continuous means an unbroken event or series of events. Continual means events that occur repeatedly but not in an unbroken period of time:
The snow fell continuously from Monday through Thursday, leaving four feet of snow over much of New England. (It never stopped snowing.)
The snow fell continually from Monday through Thursday, leaving three feet of snow over much of New England. (It snowed on and off during those four days.)
I wish I had a simple way for you to remember the difference between these two words. The only idea I can come up with is that continual is a shorter word than continuous; the snow that falls continually has breaks, so it falls for a shorter period of time. Any better suggestions will be greatly appreciated.
I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.
• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.
• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.
Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.
But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural. Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:
• The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.
This morning I read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by a man extolling the advantages of couples sleeping in separate bedrooms. Given the situation in his household, he made a convincing personal argument. He ends the essay by writing that the two-bedroom solution might not work for everyone, “but for my wife and I,” it is working well.
OK, so he didn’t know that when deciding between I and me, if you temporarily remove the other person, you’ll immediately know which pronoun to use. He never would have written, “for I, it’s a good solution.” Adding his wife back in changes nothing. It still should be “for my wife and me.”
The author made the error—but where was the editor of the op-ed page of the LA Times? I can come to only two conclusions: either no editor exists for op-ed pieces, or there is an editor but that person also is ignorant about which pronoun to use. Either situation saddens me. You, too?
© Judi Birnberg
In Just My Typo, edited by Drummond Moir (gotta love his name), he cites a 19th century example of carelessness:
A New Orleans cotton broker sent a telegraph to New York, asking if he should buy cotton at the current prices. He received an answer of “No price too high.” Naturally, he bought as much as he could, only to discover that the answer should have been punctuated as follows: “No. Price too high.”
One tiny dot on paper can make a world of difference.
Will she be discreet?
These two words are pronounced identically and are commonly mistaken for each other.
DISCREET means circumspect, prudent, careful. If you are discreet, you will avoid gossiping or criticizing others. You try to avoid embarrassing others. Roger promised he would be discreet after his best friend told him he was thinking of divorcing his fourth wife.
DISCRETE means singular, unconnected, separate. Academy Awards are given in multiple discrete categories.
Surely you know how often I urge you to proofread everything you write. Proofreading will turn up careless errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, as well as typos. Yes, you should still check for all of these, but editing goes beyond that.
Editing makes certain your writing is clear. Are you sure you are conveying the message you intended? Have you assumed your readers know what you know? If so, then why are you writing? You are imparting new information. But you have to be confident you are not confusing your readers, that your information that is new to them is presented logically and cogently.
Editing makes certain your writing is concise. Look for digressions and extraneous words. Get rid of redundancies: last but not least, at this point in time, absolutely complete, true fact, four P.M. in the afternoon, new innovation, blue in color, exactly identical, etc.
I have noticed that when I edit and change wording or move things around, when I then reread what I’ve written I often find I have left a word out or need to remove a word I had inadvertently left in when I revised. This is the time to read your text out loud (quietly, but still audible to you) and one. word. at. a. time. That way you will send your document out without embarrassing glitches. If you read at your normal silent speed, you will very likely speed over them.
Remember, revise comes from the Latin, to see again.
One of my favorite programs is “The Great British Baking Show.” In an early season, a show photographer caught this image of a squirrel on the grounds where the program is shot. (The contestants often use nuts in their recipes, and this photo does indicate a squirrel that is definitely well hung. But I digress.)
My husband and I hung some of my paintings today. Since everything I do makes me think of language, of course I thought of the difference between hanged and hung, two words that are frequently used interchangeably and incorrectly. I originally wrote this post over four years ago, without the squirrel, so I thought I’d do a rerun. Here’s the scoop:
HANGED is used for executions or suicide: “The criminal was hanged.” Sometimes you see “hanged to death” along with “strangled to death” and “starved to death.” Those are all redundancies. If you’re hanged, strangled or starved, you are dead.
HUNG is used for decor: “Angela hung the picture of the well hung model on her bedroom wall.”