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I'm curious about the general difference between the two, but I have to be more specific.

I'd like to know the difference in the context of the noun period — should I use "the start of the period" or "the beginning of the period"?

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Duplicate of “began to ring” or “started ringing”? –  Kris May 11 '12 at 21:25
    
For a race perhaps, I would say "from start to finish" but for a period, "from beginning to end." –  justin-- Dec 12 '12 at 7:58
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Not much.

Both mean pretty much the same thing, but start is felt to be slightly less formal than begin (possibly a result of the extra syllable in begin).

Both words occur in most idioms that feature one or the other (these sentences are all grammatical and also synonymous):

  • He's been involved from the beginning/start.
  • He's already beginning/starting to pack now.
  • You should begin/start packing now.

But the second sentence in the following is ungrammatical, so there's some difference, at least in the verbal usages:

  • Start him out with easy problems.
  • *Begin him out with easy problems.
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But one could Just be beginning with easy problems. –  user14070 May 11 '12 at 19:34
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Sure, but phrasal verbs (start out, start off, etc.) don't work the same. Plus direct objects vary: you can start your engine, but you can't begin your engine (unless you're talking about building it). The nouns don't have most of these restrictions because they're only nouns; verbs have more fun. –  John Lawler May 11 '12 at 19:39
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+1 for the engine example. However, I am compelled to respond, "Gentlemen begin the internal combustion process in your engines!". –  user14070 May 11 '12 at 19:44
    
You start an engine because it is sudden and a change of state, and once that state has changed the 'start' is over. You begin the internal combustion because it a process of (usually) four stages - we begin with induction, then compression, then ignition, then exhaust. –  Roaring Fish May 12 '12 at 6:46
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The main difference is in the etymology.

'Start' comes from Old High German; 'begin' is probably West Germanic. We also have 'commence' that came from French, and hence has a connotation of being in a more educated register.

In use, the difference between 'start' and 'begin' is that 'start' has an idea of suddenness, as in 'startle'. 'Begin' implies a process, a sequence of events.

If you say "Shall we start?", it implies right now, that it is urgent, and the change from not working to working is important. If you say "Shall we begin?" is more relaxed, and implies that something has been organised, and the beginning has a schedule following it.

You could maybe think of it that a 'start' is a transition from one state to another, and a 'beginning' is the origin of a continued path, journey, or process.

On that basis, to answer your question, a period should probably 'begin' rather than 'start'.

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Yes, that's right. One occasionally runs across "He gave a start when the phone rang" or similar; this means he jerked in surprise. That's the original meaning of the noun. –  John Lawler May 12 '12 at 15:29
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The only differences I would loosely ascribe to the those two words in the given context are connotative:

Start may have the connotation of being in the future and beginning may more easily be associated with the past.

The period will start in 15 minutes. vs I can barely remember the beginning of the period.

Start has the sense of being a fixed point in time, while beginning could possibly refer to any time between the start and the halfway point.

At the start of the period I was eager to learn, but 15 minutes into the beginning I was bored with the material.

Above based solely on my own perception as a native speaker of American English with a west coast bias.

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I don’t see why one couldn’t freely interchange start and beginning in both your example sentences without any change of meaning whatsoever. –  tchrist May 11 '12 at 20:52
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