Is there a meaning difference between started to go and started going in this example sentence?

"...", he said and started to go/going away.

  • The "act of leaving" is normally thought of as "instantaneous", so it doesn't naturally subdivide into "start", "middle", and "end" phases (you don't usually start or finish leaving). In the cited context it's more likely we'd refer to some other associated action that immediately precedes leaving; "I'll see you later", said John as he stood up to leave. – FumbleFingers Dec 27 '19 at 13:43
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    Does this answer your question? Start + Gerund vs Start + Infinitive: is there a subtle tense difference? – FumbleFingers Dec 27 '19 at 13:46
  • ...alternatively, you might find your problems are better addressed by this English Language Learners question: Why is it “to start laughing” and not “to start to laugh”? – FumbleFingers Dec 27 '19 at 13:48
  • Your first comment helped a lot. May I use something like "to distance", e.g. he slowly distanced himself to put an emphasis on the act of leaving? – forky Dec 27 '19 at 14:23
  • I wouldn't recommend using reflexive distance [oneself] for such contexts, no. That's usually a metaphorical usage - so you'd "distance yourself" from an ongoing argument by refusing to engage verbally, with no implication of physical movement, and it's common to hear of a politician, say, distancing himself from some vote-losing position (taking steps to avoid being associated with an unpopular opinion). Perhaps he slowly edged away would suit your context, but this is writing advice, not "grammar" as such. – FumbleFingers Dec 27 '19 at 14:50

KarlG's answer to the question Start + Gerund vs Start + Infinitive: is there a subtle tense difference? that FumbleFingers linked in a comment says:

In most contexts, "start to V" and "start Ving" have the same meaning,

and then goes on to provide an example (knocking/knock) where there is very little difference. In most cases, I agree that there is little-or-no difference. However, the answer also includes:

In her monograph The Semantics of English Aspectual Complementation (2012), Alice F. Freed points out that in contrast to begin, the verb start can also denote the onset of an action without its actual completion. To knock on a door, for instance, requires (1) approaching the door with the intention to knock, (2) raising the arm, (3) forming a fist, then (4) striking or tapping the surface of the door with the knuckles some number of times. If only the onset of the action occurs, i.e. anything or everything before (4), then the idiomatic choice can only be the marked infinitive ("started to knock"), not the gerund-participle ("started knocking").

My emphasis and parenthesized examples

I think this subtle distinction (between the onset of an action and its completion) is particularly applicable to the case of started to go vs. started going, where (in at least some situations), the process of going can be a drawn-out affair.

If visitors begin to collect their possessions, say goodbye to their hosts and put on their coats, it could be said that they "started to go [home]", even though they have not yet left the house. Once they have left the house, got in their car, and are pulling away from the kerb, then you could say that they "started going [home]".

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I think both implicate the same meaning. But if started going is used, then away should be eliminated.

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  • So started to go away is fine, whereas the gerund form denies "away" and it should be started going? – forky Dec 27 '19 at 13:10
  • Dropping away in this context sounds a bit off to me. Can you establish that it “should be eliminated”? – Lawrence Dec 27 '19 at 15:56

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