13

This is something that has been puzzling me for a while. For example:

He started to run.

He began to run.

In common/informal speech, how do native English speakers decide when to use the former and when to use the latter?

15

Begin and start are synonyms with a few exceptions. Both are correct in your examples though begin may sound more formal. The following extract will help:

  • We can use the verbs begin and start to mean the same thing but begin is more formal than start. Begin is an irregular verb. Its past simple form is began and its -ed form is begun:

    When did you begin learning English?
    The meeting didn’t start until 9 pm.

  • We use start, but not begin, to talk about machines:

    Press this button to start the printer.
    Not: …to begin the printer.

    The lawnmower won’t start. (this means that it doesn’t work)
    Not: The lawnmower won’t begin.

  • Start, but not begin, is used to talk about creating a new business:

    She started a new restaurant and it’s been going really well.
    Not: She began a new restaurant …

(dictionary.cambridge.org/it/grammatical)

  • 12
    If I "start a race" I probably have a starter's pistol, if I "begin a race" I probably have track shoes. – ChrisW May 10 '15 at 12:29
  • Specifically with the machines and the restaurant, I think the rule is approximately that you say "started X", not "began X", when X is one step removed from the actual ongoing activity. So you can say either, "I started/began running a restaurant", because "running" is active. The restaurant itself just sits there, and for whatever reason that means we can shorten to "started a restaurant", not "began a restaurant". "Starting a printer" isn't the beginning of the printer at all, so you don't say you began the printer. It's the beginning of a period of the printer being switched on ;-) – Steve Jessop May 10 '15 at 12:29
  • 4
    You can say, on the other hand, "our business began in 1980 when we opened our first restaurant". So the intransitive version of "begin" can be OK for businesses. But like you say, not so much the transitive. – Steve Jessop May 10 '15 at 12:35
  • "We use start, but not begin, to talk about machines." Is it quite that simple? Consider: "The printer began to run out of ink." "The robotic lawnmower began cutting the grass." Maybe you'd be more likely to say "started", but "began" doesn't sound wrong here. – Michael Geary May 11 '15 at 3:12
  • Put another way, your printer and lawnmower examples both involve engines of one sort or another, and to "start" an engine is another way to say "cause the engine to begin operating." – Michael Geary May 11 '15 at 3:22
12

In their main senses, start and begin are synonyms.

However, start has an additional sense where begin doesn't apply: [Oxford, sense 1.1]

Embark on a continuing action or a new venture:

Keeping that in mind, he started running might imply he started running regularly as a hobby.

Compare:

  • As soon as he saw the cop round the corner, he started running. (can use began here)

  • In his attempts to get in better shape, he started running. (can't use began here)

To avoid ambiguity, to mean he started the activity of running at the time you're talking about, like my first example, use he began running.

(I'm using the -ing form deliberately here as it helps me illustrate my point better, but note that Oxford states the infinitive(to) and -ing forms have no difference in meaning for both begin and start)

PS - I'm not a native speaker. You might wanna take it with a grain of salt.

  • In your example of running from the police, there is no ambiguity if you use "started". – Steven Littman May 9 '15 at 15:40
  • @StevenLittman: Exactly my point. Let me edit to clarify – Tushar Raj May 9 '15 at 15:58
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    Out of all the answers, I prefer this one. But when starting (!) a hobby such as running, I would say: "He took up running (in order to get fit)". To be clear, there's nothing wrong with "He started running". – Mari-Lou A May 10 '15 at 8:48
  • @Mari-LouA: You're right. Your way of phrasing serves to disambiguate it from the first sense. – Tushar Raj May 10 '15 at 9:03
1

I don't know whether this is me, or if it is in effect a significant difference but when I want to express the idea of when or why a bad habit or addiction commenced I tend to prefer start + verb + ing.

  • He started smoking crack in his teens
  • She started taking drugs at University
  • He could see no solution to his problems, so he started drinking …
  • She started sleeping with anyone who …

In Google Books we see the following;

  1. started smoking crack fetches 1,680 results
  2. began smoking crack fetches 232 results
  3. began to smoke crack has 39 results
  4. started to smoke crack gets 26 results

  1. started taking drugs fetches 10,400 results
  2. began taking drugs fetches 4,040 results
  3. began to take drugs gets 2,550 results
  4. started to take drugs only has 990 results

In the OP's examples there is no difference in meaning between He started to run and He began to run. And neither with He started running and He began running, personally I don't see why begin is considered more formal than start; but I have read that it is a “difference”.

  • 2
    this likely falls into the 'Embark on a continuing action' category that Area51 mentioned. – Joe May 10 '15 at 2:50
  • Didn't there used to be more comments? – Pharap May 12 '15 at 6:11
  • @Pharap yes. Probably somebody flagged the comments and asked for them to be deleted. Mods have this imbued power. They could have left my comment saying why this post was written though (puzzled n bemused look face) – Mari-Lou A May 12 '15 at 6:16
  • @Joe Would you object if someone said: "He began taking part in competitions"? OR "They began writing short stories for magazines"? I think it's different for negative habits or addictions. Anyway, I would not have posted if I hadn't seen this confirmed in Google Books, and it was while I was "researching" that Area 51 edited and much improved his answer. My answer was posted almost immediately after. It happens sometimes. (This is a paraphrased but more detailed comment of mine which was probably flagged and then deleted by the mods. Users beware!! Comments are not permanent.) – Mari-Lou A May 12 '15 at 6:27
  • @Mari-LouA : the examples that you gave are clear that they're a continuing series of events and not just a single occurance. You could also get context from the specificity of the time: "He started writing his story at 10pm." vs. "He began writing his story three years ago." – Joe May 12 '15 at 15:22
1

The start of something defines a unique new event in its own right, the beginning is just the change in state of something that already exists. For that reason what is starting usually needs to be expressed That is why a business can be a startup, but never a beginup. If you initiate an intermittent process; Start generally refers to the beginning of the first active period while begin generally refers to the start of any active period. That sentence rather nicely demonstrates how one can become the other by changing the scope of what you are concerned with. Start most modifies a verb, while begin

1

Disclaimer: My observations may not be representative of others' usage of the English language.

Personally I find that people usually only use 'began' before a 'to', in which case it's usually interchangeable with 'started'.

  • He began to think hard about the situation.
  • He started to think hard about the situation.
  • He began to run.
  • He started to tun.

Compared to:

  • He began thinking hard about the situation.
  • He started thinking hard about the situation.
  • He began running
  • He started running

The main difference when choosing between the two is pace. 'Began' is used more often for a slow action, whereas 'started' is used for both but will almost always be chosen if the action is quick.

For example "he began to think quickly" doesn't sound as good as "he started to think quickly". Compare this to "the cat began to creep slowly forward" and "the cat started to creep slowly forward" where the former sentence sounds better.

  • There does seem to be a bit of resonance with the other meaning of start ( move or jump suddenly ) making 'starting slowly' odd, though 'starting softly' or other adverbs which don't imply tempo ok. – Pete Kirkham May 10 '15 at 21:55
  • @PeteKirkham I think the slowly-softly thing is an issue of connotation. Imagine a slow sound and then imagine a soft sound. Chances are the former would be low amplitude (i.e. low pitch) and low frequency (i.e. slow) and the later would be high amplitude (i.e. high pitch) and either frequency (i.e. slow or fast). – Pharap May 12 '15 at 6:10
1

just a few minor addenda to the many excellent observations already made here.

my starting-point (not my beginning-point) is this:

clearly there is a very great deal of overlap in the core usage of start and begin. it is only when we begin to examine the matter closely that interesting contrasts start to force themselves on our attention.

whilst both words have Germanic roots, one (begin)is a strong form which has substituted the intensifying prefix be- for an earlier on-, whereas the other (start) is a weak verb whose meaning has shifted and developed considerably over the last 800 years though the character of its original semantic field, involving shock, surprise, sudden-ness, has been to some extent retained, albeit gradually de-emphasized.

Marie-Lou's point here is worth further investigation:

I don't know whether this is me, or if it is in effect a significant difference but when I want to express the idea of when or why a bad habit or addiction commenced I tend to prefer start + verb + ing.

moreover her statistics (though caution is due with a small sample of contexts) suggest a polarization of the two terms when used as an auxiliary of initiation.

with either auxiliary, the gerund formation (started playing, began playing) is more popular than the infinitive form (started to play, began to play). however this contrast is much more marked in the case of start. this contrast disappears when the auxiliary is a present participle:

beginning to see the light

but not

beginning seeing the light

a fairly clear difference between the verbs start and begin may be observed if we examine how they combine with the suffixes -ing and -er

for example whereas beginning is freely used as a noun, this is not true of starting.

of course one might dismiss this as a mere vagary of accidence, since the start serves as a noun whose use overlaps considerably with that of the beginning. however it might be reasonably claimed that the indefinite forms a start and a beginning are inter-substitutable in only a minority of cases. this is accompanied by the vernacular flexibility of the shorter term in idioms like start-up.

the differentiation is far plainer when we look at starter and beginner! just to give one example the phrase non-starter is a frequent idiom and used in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. the term non-beginner is not merely unused, but even sounds wrong (to me), although i could apprehend the meaning if i read the (erroneous):

non-beginners may skip the first seven chapters...

0

I really don't think there is a difference when talking about an activity one is doing (as opposed to starting something else, like the car)--except for this: if an activity is begun but not completed, native English speakers will definitely use start: "I started to vacuum (but succumbed to my Candycrush addiction); he started rehab (but quit after 2 days); she started her history paper (but hasn't gotten past the second paragraph yet)".

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