It's a recurring problem I encounter (maybe problem is a bit of a big word here):

I'm trying to describe something as not discrete, some phenomenon that shouldn't be described or thought of in binary or categorical terms, but allows for nuances of values, and then tend to use the adjective "continuous".

But then the more formally inclined among my friends tend to snarkily ask whether I'm sure the phenomenon I'm talking about is really continuous and eventually Cauchy will be brought up.

In other words, I'm wondering: what's a good synonym for "continuous" (in the sense above), without the strong mathematical associations?

So far I can think of:

  • "gradual", but that seems to be used slightly different, not describing a phenomenon mainly, but a process (at least, that's my intuition)

  • "graded", not sure about that one...

  • "gradable", feels like a good candidate, but is mainly understood as a linguistics terms (for adjectives). Right?

Any other (perhaps better) ideas?

(edit) By comment suggestion of FumbleFingers, some examples:

  • "I don't think anyone is absolutely, completely 'progressive' or 'conservative' in his or her political leanings, even if they claim that they are. In my opinion, the political belief system of any actual person is necessarily _____ [continuous/on a continuum/non-categorical/fluid/etc.]", where ____ is a placeholder for the word I am looking for.

  • Discussing philosophical concepts, like choice or free will, expressing the idea that these concepts should be thought of as [continuously] defined, not in discrete or categorical terms.

  • Similarly, in political discussions: political leanings (left/right) being on a spectrum, not binary.

Another two remarks:

  • Comment suggestion of "(not) simplistic" is solid, but ideally, I'd like to express it as a positive claim, not by negation

  • "Continuous" is perhaps the closest term I have, and the best in general, but it is most likely not the best when discussing with some people (since for them, the term is mainly understood in a formal sense).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Sep 18, 2016 at 16:13
  • I realise that this was asked several years ago, which is the reason as to why I’m simply leaving a comment rather than posting this as an answer, but would provisional work?
    – Kit
    Jan 19, 2019 at 20:13

5 Answers 5


Try "gradated" - you were on the right track with "graded/gradual/gradable".

"Gradate" means "to pass by gradual or imperceptible degrees, as one color into another" (see above link), therefore "gradated" as an adjective would mean "passing by gradual or imperceptible degrees..."

  • I think that's my favorite so far. Maybe a bit uncommon, but probably not so arcane that it won't be understood, and if in doubt, I can refer to the noun, gradation, easily, for clarification. And little chance of being understood as intended more formal than intended (unless when talking to chemists maybe, judging by a glance at Google). Sep 17, 2016 at 22:15
  • Chemists use "graduated cylinders" so "graduated" is another option but that might confuse people who are thinking of school graduation.
    – ekolis
    Sep 17, 2016 at 22:18
  • I just went by a brief look at: scholar.google.com/… There seems to be plenty of medicine, chemistry, biomaterials articles. Anyway, I can live with that :) Sep 17, 2016 at 22:21
  • Judging by the current votes, the EL&U hive mind seems to prefer "on a continuum", which I acknowledge is probably the more generally applicable term. However, for the specific case I described (i.e. synonym to avoid association with "continuous", or related words), I much prefer your suggestion. Will mark as 'answered'. Thanks! Sep 18, 2016 at 11:41

Maybe on a continuum or continuum? Applied to your example in the comments

being progressive or conservative is not either/or-- it's a continuum

I think in normal usage this has less of a numeric/mathematical association

  • Google Books claims over 500 instances of a continuum not a dichotomy, and it seems to relate well to OP's context. Sep 17, 2016 at 16:42
  • @FumbleFingers I agree. I suppose it's not the term itself that is the problem, but that it is understood in a different way by a group of people I often discuss these things with. Sep 17, 2016 at 17:04
  • @BertZangle - Are you saying these people give you a hard time when you say "on a continuum"? Is the problem that these people start getting nitpicky as soon as they hear words used frequently in math? Sep 18, 2016 at 1:27
  • 1
    @BertZangle - They are strange. "On a continuum" should be fine. However, if it causes difficulties in communication, then of course you need to find a different way to express your idea. Would "there is a whole range of political beliefs" go over better? "Range" also has a technical meaning in math, so I'm not sure. I suppose you'd just have to test it with them. Sep 18, 2016 at 1:37
  • 1
    @aparente001 To be honest, I don't completely like the word too much either, the formal association is pretty strong for me as well. Not sure why, but "range" is harmless in comparison. Note that I'm not saying: "Don't use continuum/continuous unless you mean the formal term", but simply: "In semi-formal discussions with formally inclined people, I would prefer to avoid the term, and would like to know a good (near) synonym". I don't find that so strange, actually -- you aim to adapt your language to your audience/peers. Sep 18, 2016 at 11:49

A matter of degree.

degree - step or stage in intensity or amount; the relative intensity, extent, measure, or amount of a quality, attribute, or action (OED).


Not a single word but this may fit: infinite shades of grey/gray

Cambridge dictionary:

shades of grey

the fact of it not being clear in asituation what is right and wrong:

The film presents a straightforward choice between good and evil, with no shades of grey.


The phrase "shades of gray" usually refers to a situation that is not clear, particularly with regard to whether or not something is categorically evil. When doubt comes into play, things are neither black, nor white, but are in a gray area



Consider this Nietzsche aphorism:

Habit of Seeing Opposites -- The general imprecise way of observing sees everywhere in nature opposites (as, e.g., 'warm and cold') where there are, not opposites, but differences of degree. This bad habit has led us into wanting to comprehend and analyze the inner world, too, the spiritual-moral world, in terms of opposites. An unspeakable amount of painfulness, arrogance, harshness, estrangement, frigidity, has entered into human feelings because we think we see opposites instead of transitions. [A Wanderer and His Shadow, 67]

This suggests transitional, the adjectival form of transition, as a possibility. So one shouldn't think of progressives and conservatives, for example, as opposites, but more as limiting cases, between which there are any number of other political "types" providing a transition from end of the political spectrum to the other.

From Dictionary.com:

transition: movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, concept, etc., to another; change: the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Transitional conveys a definite sense of continuity between two states (e.g., hot and cold, adolescence and adulthood) with no implication of discrete intermediate states and without strong mathematical associations.

  • "Transitional" is quite good (also, since I'd prefer to find an adjective, and not paraphrase via nouns). But I always thought it is mainly understood as "not lasting indefinitely", but maybe I'm mistaken there. Sep 17, 2016 at 16:52
  • @Bert Zangle: But there are other perspectives. You might accuse your rhetorical adversaries of polarising the issue. Or point out that "Extreme1" and "Extreme2" are orthogonal (they're not even properly opposite, so it's quite possible to consider probability spaces where both can coexist to some extent). But you'll get into a sticky position if you try to maintain support for some kind of "middle ground" in contexts where others believe clear-cut "right OR wrong" categorization is possible/natural. And subjective may be highly relevant. Sep 17, 2016 at 17:32
  • @FumbleFingers All good points for these kind of discussions in general, but in a more narrow sense: what I need is a way to express "arbitrarily many degrees (are needed for this concept) (in my opinion)", without suggesting I am making a more formal claim than I want to (due to the jargon overload) Sep 17, 2016 at 18:36

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