I came across this sentence while reading Wikipedia and the second occurrence of "continuum" stood out to me as totally wrong since a continuum is specifically a range which can be divided into an unlimited number of possibilities.

"Some linguists consider the rough/soft continuum more accurate than the male/female continuum.

So what is the best word to use here to differentiate the very limited number of possibilities?


I'm genuinely surprised that so many people find "continuum" a good way to describe a choice between "male" and "female". As a programmer I can best clarify with a programming analogy:

  • To represent the rough/soft continuum I would use a float type
  • To represent the male/female choice I would use an enum or a bool type

(apologies to the non-programmers who may be baffled by this jargon)


I think I need to clarify what I was and was not asking:

  • I was not asking about semantics or biology or gender identity regarding the existence of points between "male" and "female". I agree such points exist.
  • I was not asking about semantics or linguistics regarding the continuous range of the subject of the linguists' consideration. I agree that what they are considering is a continuum.
  • I am asking about English Language & Usage regarding the choice of words of the writer of this sentence which in my opinion poorly contrasts "continuum" to "continuum" in a comparison.

Let me rephrase the sentence the way I read it:

Linguists generally hold that there is an option between male style and female style, but some linguists consider this inaccurate and instead hold that there is a free range between rough style and soft style.

Whereas it seems to me that some answerers and commenters have read it this way:

All linguists hold that there is a free range of style and while this range is generally referred to as a "male/female continuum", some linguists consider that calling it a "rough/soft" continuum is more accurate.

To me the first reading seems natural and second reading seems strange. The second reading seems to trust that the writer has flawless skills in English language expression and definitely wrote what he intended. Alternatively the second reading would make sense if there existed a technical linguistic term "the male/female continuum".

Since I can find no use of such a term used by linguists besides this Wikipedia article (but I can find it in other fields such as gender identity), I read it as a sentence from a writer who knew what he was thinking but due to poor word choice did not write what he intended.

  • 11
    Poor hermaphrodites, always discriminated against.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 13:32
  • 3
    I think the terminology continuum is fine the way it is. It should have read masculine/feminine continuum rather than male/female, because male and female are usually seen as alternatives, as opposed to masculine and feminine, where you have a continuum from (say) John Wayne to Marilyn Monroe. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 13:53
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    @hippietrail, there are other possibilities. As there are possibilities between rough and soft (and later in article blunt and gentle), there are possibilities between man and woman (that's why Peter Shor suggests masculine and feminine as better and why RegDwight mentions hermaphrodites).
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:24
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    @hippietrail, analogies work if they are correct; what I propose to you is that the article is talking about the same continuum all the time. First take the linguistic definition of continuum (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialect_continuum) then apply that to what is said under en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… : "Regional dialect may often play a role in the expression and perception masculinity or femininity of speech". Here masculinity and femininity of speech slide on the gender continuum due to dialect.
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:54
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    @hippitrail: your edit misses the point. I agree with you that continuum is a poor word to describe choice between two distinct options. I also believe that article is not talking about choice between two values. To put it back in computer jargon, all I was trying to say is that I believe that article does not talk about enum or bool values when it talks about male and female, but about float.
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 16:01

8 Answers 8


In this particular case you could use dichotomy or division, since you are distinguishing between only two possibilities. (It's not actually that simple in real life, but this is English.SE not Biology.SE).

The best general antonym I can think of is (discrete) set, but you would almost never use it in the same way. You would usually use some more specific term for whatever you were talking about, which would be in turn definable as a set.

  • Yes I kept thinking of "discrete" too but it has no noun form and would be too technical to fit the sentence as would "duality" as well as "dichotomy". I'm starting to think there is no one and the sentence should simply be recast. Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:43
  • The phrase "male/female dichotomy" would substitute in the sentence perfectly, and is no more technical than the rest of the article.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 0:42

The antonym of 'continuous' is 'discrete'. There is no immediate single word antonym of the noun 'continuum' meaning a set of discrete items (and that would be recognized as such). But since a noun is desired, one can use the word:


to be a word that emphasizes the difference with continuum, where you want to say there is a jump between the two endpoints.

  • there is also discontinuous, antonym can reverse the overall concept (discrete) or just a part of it - discontinuous means having intervals or gaps.
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:05
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    I promote the usage of the term "discontinuum".
    – JAB
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 20:06

For the original source where the quote was taken from, I think the terminology continuum is fine the way it is. It should have read masculine/feminine continuum rather than male/female, because male and female are usually viewed as alternatives, as opposed to masculine and feminine, where you have a continuum from (to pick two fairly arbitrary exemplars) John Wayne to Marilyn Monroe.


As a student of mathematics, if it is not in continuuum, it is in finite

(1st Edit in support of the comments below)

Continuum is defined in mathematics as "a set of real numbers between any two of which a third can always be found, and in which there are no gaps" Source

Finite on the other hand is defined as "having a countable number of elements" Source

However, I understand the point that finite is an adjective and it cannot be used as an antonym to continuum which is a noun.

(2nd Edit)

The noun form of finite is finiteness, which I believe could be used in the context of continuum being an endless series of numbers/values within a set.

The third entry in this link - http://thesaurus.com/browse/continuum - confirms the same.

Please note the fact that Roget's thesaurus does not list any antonyms under Continuum by itself. As such, in varying contexts, it makes sense to use words that more or less accurately depict the opposite of the context being portrayed.

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    Continuum is a (countable) noun. Finite is an adjective.
    – user1579
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:35
  • Let's make it finiteness then. BTW, looking at the definition of finite and continuum here bing.com/Dictionary/search?q=define+finite&go=&form=QB , I guess finite is a good option as an antonym.
    – Sri Atluru
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:41
  • Sorry, that's no good either. Your link doesn't work, but I suspect you are referring to the American Heritage Dictionary definition "a finite thing." I'm frankly rather dubious; I haven't heard it used like that even in a mathematical context. Finiteness is a noun, but it's an uncountable property rather than an object.
    – user1579
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:55
  • The links works fine for me. This is what its meaning says, "2. mathematics - countable: having a countable number of elements" which i believe is an antonym of continuum which is defined as "set of numbers: a set of real numbers between any two of which a third can always be found, and in which there are no gaps"
    – Sri Atluru
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 15:32
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    That would still be an adjective.
    – user1579
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 15:37

To answer the original question and the first edit, perhaps the sentence could be improved like this:

Some linguists consider the rough/soft continuum more accurate than the (or a) male/female classification.


In the specific sentence you are referring to, I'd suggest "range of values" would be appropriate. However, some words that are in the general semantic domain you are looking for, though they might not apply exactly here, would be: discrete, punctuated, and quantized.


Based on your preferred interpretation, it seems that you are assuming that, because male and female are discrete, opposite categories, it follows that male-style and female-style are also discrete, opposite categories. I think that if you're willing to give up this assumption, and allow for styles which are, e.g., more "male-style" than "female-style", or vice versa, I suspect you might find male/female continuum to be acceptable.

Another way to look at it is ... you might think of things in terms of percentages of judgment of someone's speech as male/female-style by other individuals in the society. For example, let's say that a sentence (or other linguistic unit) A is judged as a female-style by X% percent of a certain group of individuals, while some other sentence B is judged as female-style by Y% of the same group, and so on. Assuming 0% female-style is equivalent to 100% male-style, the sense of continuum falls out naturally. It's somewhat abstract, but I think it works, and I would bet that something like that is what the author intended.

  • As I tried to say, I accept the variability of what was being discussed but not that the author chose the best wording. Whether I as one reader can think of continuous gradient from male to female is one thing. But if somebody was writing about the alternative naming away from female/male to a continuous rough/soft gradient, then I would say that their decision to name the previous also a continuum (unless that's how it is generally described), is a poor choice of words. And I wonder how an editor or English teacher would respond. (A linguistics or gender studies teacher may react differently) Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 12:53

When speaking in the context of the distribution of a series of numerical values, it is common to refer to a spectrum as a continuum, and a limited set of specific numbers as a quantized series.

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