To writers not exactly sure of their differences, the words contiguous and continuous can be a bit confusing.
They have similar sounds, and they are only one letter apart from one another. Substitute the “g” in contiguous or the “n” in continuous, and the words now have the same spellings.
What is the Difference Between Contiguous and Continuous?
In this post, I want to talk about the differences between these two words. I will cover the definitions and their functions in a sentence. Plus, I will provide examples for both words, so you can see how they look in a sentence.
After reading this post, you shouldn’t ever mix up contiguous vs. continuous again.
When to Use Contiguous
Contiguous is an adjective that means sharing an edge or boundary, touching; neighboring, adjacent.
- His district is contiguous to mine.
- Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan are contiguous states.
- The United States has two contiguous neighbors: Canada and Mexico.
Contiguous means something more specific than just nearby or close to. It means touching or adjacent to. So for two things to truly be contiguous, they must touch each other.
One additional note about contiguous, when pairing it with a preposition, always use to. Something is contiguous to something, not contiguous with something.
Common Mistakes Using Contiguous: Contiguous 48 States?
There’s an interesting note in Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage wherein he speaks to the illogic of the common phrase the 48 contiguous states: referring, of course, to those 48 states between Canada and Mexico. Here’s an example,
- A recent study estimates that the combined value of all land in the contiguous United States is worth nearly $23 trillion. – USA Today
As Garner puts it, this is sort of an illogical idiom that has arisen that doesn’t make much sense given the fact that a state like Rhode Island can’t possibly touch all 47 other states.
Other variations of this phrase are similarly illogical. Consider the continental United States.
- In addition to posting a $4,500 bond, Mr. Hastert was ordered to surrender his passport, remain in the continental United States, advise the court of any change in his address, and remove guns from his home within two weeks. – The New York Times
Alaska is technically a part of the North American continent, so this phrasing doesn’t make much sense either.
One last variation—for fun. Examine the phrase, the lower 48 states.
- Bull trout are a cold water species listed as threatened in the Lower 48 states in 1999. – Associated Press
Well, these 48 states are certainly “lower” than—say—Alaska, but how about when compared to Hawaii?
I bring these examples up for fun and curiosity’s sake. The technically “proper” term to refer to these 48 states is conterminous, which means to be contained within the same boundaries.
The conterminous 48 states? Good luck getting that to catch on. It looks like we’re left with the other variations for now.
When to Use Continuous
Continuous, as discussed elsewhere on this site, is an adjective that is used to describe duration. It means uninterrupted in time, sequence, extent; ceaseless.
- The audio book is divided into different tracks, but it plays as a continuous album.
- There was a continuous backup of traffic for two miles.
- These headphones can last for 35 continuous hours of playback.
Continuous is used to describe things uninterrupted in time or space or events that happen without interruption and stops.
Remember the Difference
There are two helpful mnemonics to keep continuous vs. contiguous separated.
First, contiguous has to do with things that are touching. You could say that these things are neighbors. Neighbors and Contiguous both have the letter “G” in them.
The second has to do with the last three letters of continuous. If you remember that these three letters –ous stand for “One Uninterrupted Sequence” you can easily remember its meaning.
These two words have different meanings, so it’s important not to mix up contiguous or continuous.
Contiguous means touching or adjacent to.
Continuous means uninterrupted and ceaseless.