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Are both expressions

  • "At the beginning"
  • "In the beginning"

valid and equivalent? The first "seems wrong" to me, but it has more Google results.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

They are valid but not interchangeable. I think the most important difference is that "in the beginning" seems to be an expression describing a whole period of time, while "at the beginning" more literally describes a single moment in time, similar to the difference between saying "in the morning" and "at 8 a.m."

Compare your question to "in the end" versus "at the end." "In the end" is an idiom synonymous with "ultimately." There's a clear distinction. I think the same can be said for "in the beginning"/"at the beginning."

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"In the beginning" are the three words that open the Book of Genesis in the Bible. For Christians, the phrase conveys that additional sense of an origination.

"At the beginning" by itself just sounds incomplete to my ear. At the beginning of what?

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Why in the world would anyone downvote this answer? And all in secret, too. –  Pete Wilson Apr 10 '11 at 19:36
    
I was puzzling at that myself. Did I offend someone? –  mfe Apr 10 '11 at 19:48
    
Given the religious context I'm surprised "in..." is not the one to have more Google results. –  Eran Apr 10 '11 at 21:51
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+1. To me "In the beginning" only recalls that use (which is not known just to Christians, by the way). I would not use the phrase unless I was deliberately inviting associations with the Creation. –  Colin Fine Apr 10 '11 at 22:46
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Firstly, the [pedantic] interpretation of those phrases probably differs between locations and cultures (American English as opposed to British English etc').

Personally, it seems to me that "in the beginning" refers to time and "at the beginning" refers to placement. Often they might be casually interchanged with a figurative allusion to the other meaning.

For example: "at the beginning of the book" ,IMHO, emphasizes more the place [physically] (first pages/chapter etc') while "in the beginning of the book" emphasizes more that it's early relevant to what is happening in the book.

For most uses, I think using 'at' sounds better and I'd be more likely to use it, whether according to what I wrote here or less pedantically.

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I totally agree with you @Xenorose –  user461 Apr 11 '11 at 5:50
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At the beginning of the book ...

At the beginning of the semester ...

At the beginning of my speech ...

These are all fine and unremarkable.

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Ive always thought that when using phrases like these, it's better to use "in" when referring to time, and "at" when referring to a place. :) But I could be wrong. However, "at" could also be correct because technically, "At the beginning of my answer..." could be considered a "place in time". So I believe they are both valid ways of saying it.

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Well, let’s see. I would probably say: in the morning, in December, in 1943, in Guatemala, in Istanbul, at three o’clock, at that time, at the White House, on Tuesday, on an island, on Mars. There may be some patterns here, but it clearly isn’t quite as simple as “in=time, at=place”. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 11 '11 at 7:57
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