What’s the difference?

A little change to the usual routine this week, we’re having the guest blogger on Thursday. So here it is, an interesting lesson in language….


What’s The Difference? – 1

English is a language with many foibles and quirky bits of spelling and grammar. It is though like any sport or game – you need to know the rules if you’re going to play properly. I’m sure there will have been instances where you were writing something and wondered what the correct word or phrase to use was. There may be other times when you look back and realise you’ve used the wrong one. This post is about just a few of those often confused words or phrases that maybe sound or look the same or have a different shade of meaning. At this point I must make it clear that the differences I’m looking at are those defined by English grammar and may differ from those in the US. This is not to say that the UK has it right and the US has it wrong; they’re simply different and should be accepted as so. When in the UK spell and use as we do, when in America spell and use as they do, when in Rome etc. Anyway that’s just a roundabout way of saying that what follows may be specific to Britain and may not be the case in the US. I’m sure budding writers out there will know these but many ordinary folks don’t or they get mixed up.

Ok, so here we go.

What’s the difference between:

1. Continual/Continuous and Continually/Continuously

See if you know the right words to use in these sentences:

a. The clock needs to be wound continually/continuously to make sure it tells the right time.

b. The annoying alarm on the house sounded continually/continuously through the night.

c. There is a continual/continuous danger to pedestrians crossing this road because some motorists break the speed limit.

If you know the difference these are easy. If not then here are the answers:

1a Continually 1b Continuously 1c either is possible depending on your interpretation of the meaning.


The word “Continual” refers to a repeated action over a period of time where there are breaks in between occurrences. “Continuous” means repeated action but with no breaks.

That means in 1a the clock had to be wound otherwise it would run down and not tell the right time. It needs re-winding many times. However if you wound it continuously you would keep turning the winding knob and of course eventually the spring would break because you kept turning without stopping.

1b Continuous because the alarm sounds a constant tone without stopping (well the ones in my area do)

1c This is more difficult because you could say the danger exists only when the car is a speeding one and not when it isn’t (so continual) or you could say the danger is always there because you don’t know which car will be speeding so you have to be on your guard all the time (so continuous). In cases like this where there is a clear ambiguity you should re-write the sentence. For example Pedestrians, in this area, should always take care crossing this road because some motorists break the speed limit. This is quite clear.

2. Hung and Hanged

I’m assuming most of you will know this one but check on these examples:

a. The authorities hung/hanged the prisoner last Thursday.

b. The museum hung/hanged the picture in their newest gallery.

c. The man hung/hanged his head in shame.

Answers: 2a hanged, 2b hung, 2c hung


Hung is used when it is inanimate objects being referred to; hanged is used when human beings are referred to. Prisoners are hanged not hung; pictures/objects are hung not hanged and so on.

3. Compared to and Compared with

Again you probably know these but check on the sentences below:

a. The height of the zebra when compared with/compared to the height of an ordinary horse is not markedly different.

b. The weight of the winning jockey was compared with/compared to his weight before the start of the race

c. There is a vast difference when the speed of an elephant is compared with/compared to that of a cheetah.

Here are the answers:

3a. Compared to 3b. Compared with 3c Compared to


Because when using the word compare you can be comparing two objects which may be of the same kind or different. We can compare horse with horses, dogs with dogs; or we can compare horses to dogs. In other words when the objects (or people) are alike we use compare with but when they are different we use compare to. If you find it difficult to remember try this Rambler memory aid: think of the letter “i” in the word “with” and remember there’s an “i” in “alike” so things which are alike are compared with each other. For the comparisons between things which are not alike think of the word “to” and that the last two letters of the word “not” when reversed make “to”. So compared “to” means comparing things not alike. Just be careful if the compare and the “with” or “to” are separated in the sentence as it’s easy to forget so in this example: The safari park wardens compared the eating habits of the elephants with/to those of the rhinos. Which do you think is right?

4. Stationary and Stationery

I won’t bother with sentences here as it’s easy to remember using the Rambler memory aid: Stationary ends in “ary” so just think of “a railway” (a-ry) and the station which doesn’t move (it’s the train that does!). For stationery just think of the “er” bit also being part of the word “printer” and therefore it refers to paper and other office stuff. If you have your own ways of remembering why not let us know and reply to this post. It would be interesting to see how different people have mastered remembering the two words.

5. Due to and Owing to

This can be a difficult one and even the grammar books vary in explaining the best way to tell the difference although not about the actual instances where each should be used. Check the sentences below:

a. The truck driver was late for his delivery at the factory due to/owing to the snow on the roads leading to it.

b. Due to/owing to the recent heavy rain the river had overflowed its banks flooding the streets in the village.

c. The difficulty the students had in finding out information for their exams was due to/owing to the library being closed and the campus computer being down.

d. Flooding in the village streets was due to/owing to the recent heavy rain.

a. Owing to b. Owing to c. Due to d. Due to

Hosie & Mayhew (Choose the right word) give the easiest way to remember how to use the two expressions. First remember not to begin a sentence with “Due to”. Then thanks to them for this rule of thumb: choose “owing to” when the words can be replaced by the phrase “because of”, and choose “due to” when the words can be replaced by “caused by” without the sentence sounding odd.

For example in the above in a. if you chose “due to” it would read, with the substitution, “The truck driver was late for his delivery at the factory caused by the snow on the roads leading to it.” The sentence really needs a bit extra to make the meaning clear so “The truck driver was late for his delivery at the factory and this had been caused by (due to) the snow on the roads leading to it. This doesn’t read as smoothly as “The truck driver was late for his delivery at the factory owing to (or because of) the snow on the roads leading to it” which needs nothing extra. If you are in doubt go for “owing to” or try re-phrasing the sentence.

In sentence d. you could easily put in the words “caused by” (due to) and it makes perfect sense and needs no alteration.

6. Reason and Reason why

a. The reason why/reason I’m writing this letter is because….

b. The reason why/reason the flood happened was because of recent heavy rain

c. An empty petrol tank was the reason why/reason the car came to a stop.

In each of these cases the correct form is to use the word “reason” on its own because it is being used as a noun as in each of the sentences a,b,c. Reason contains the element of why something happened so it’s duplication to say “the reason why”. Similarly with “the reason is because” and “the reason is due to”. A reason cannot be “because of” or “due to” as this is already in the meaning of the word itself. However, when reason is used as a verb then it may be followed by why. For example: The scientists were keen to reason why this particular result had happened. In other words “reason why” can be used in the context of an investigation into finding out how something has happened.

There are of course many more of these types of usage differences and maybe I’ll do a part 2 on them in the future.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex Jones on January 24, 2013 at 16:56

    If I was a foreign person learning English I would probably cry.


    • Yes I totally agree. Our language has a lot of awkward, even one-off, rules but I think it’s actually the same with us learning other languages. We need to know their rules if we’re going to write (or speak) it correctly. Many foreign languages have more rules than we have. Think of German where case endings for their nouns are important and their positioning of some verbs at the end of a sentence and not with the subject of the verb. The Thai language uses “long” and “short” tones, “high” and “low” tones on words. A word like “kao” can mean: nine, knee, rice, come in, news, etc… it depends on the tone used. And of course for us any of the languages which write from right to left are difficult. I think learning any language is a tough job but like with my sport example, if you don’t know the rules you can’t play the game properly. I did hear in a radio prog on the subject which said that the TEFL teachers are now being allowed to teach English in the way the culture learning it will use it so they don’t have to learn the Queen’s English, if they’re not actually coming to UK, and speak it exactly as we do because in their culture they won’t. They’ll use their own local idioms so there has been some allowance made there I suppose.


  2. Excellent. Thank you! So long since I actually studied grammar. And it’s true – every language has its own quirks that become second knowledge with time and practice.. Hope to see more of these reminders


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