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I always thought the verb 'start' needed an object, for example 'I started writing a letter', or 'she started the car', but recently I read the below in a novel (THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND)..

Kit started. Had he guessed? There was no one who could possibly have told him. She had kept her secret even from the Captain's wife.

What does that first sentence mean? What did she 'start' doing?

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    Different sense of "start" -- reacted with surprise. – Hot Licks Nov 29 '20 at 2:35
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No, there are just loads and loads of intransitive uses of start that mean something like to jump or startle. Indeed, that’s the oldest use of the verb, which is why they’re all under Branch I below.

Here are just a few of them, courtesy of the OED.

I. To (cause to) make a sudden movement, and related senses.

  1. intransitive. To leap, jump; to caper, cavort; (also) to leap or spring upon a horse. Also figurative. Obsolete.
  2. a. intransitive. To move with a bound or sudden impulse from a position of rest or repose; (also) to come suddenly from or out of a place of concealment.

    c. intransitive. To rise suddenly on or upon, or (in later use esp.) to, one's feet (formerly also occasionally with legs); to stand up.
  1. a. intransitive. Of an inanimate object or substance, esp. a liquid: to issue suddenly and with force; to fly, flow, or be projected by a sudden impulse. Frequently with out, out of, from.
  1. a. (a) intransitive. To make a sudden movement, esp. of part of one's body, as to avoid a blow or perceived threat; to flinch or recoil from something in alarm or repugnance. Chiefly with from or with adverbs (as aback, aside, away, back, etc.). Also with the part of the body as subject.

    (b) intransitive. Of a horse: to shy; to swerve suddenly from its course in fright or alarm; to bolt (also with adverbs, as aside, astray, etc.).
  2. a. Hunting

    (b) intransitive. Of an animal: to emerge, esp. suddenly, from its lair or place of refuge. Also with up.
  3. a. intransitive. To undergo a sudden involuntary movement of the body, resulting from surprise, fright, sudden pain, etc.; (sometimes without implication of actual movement) to feel startled or momentarily perturbed, as at a sudden realization.
  4. a. (a) intransitive. To awake abruptly out of (also from, †out) sleep, a daze, etc.; to come awake with a start.

    b. intransitive. To come suddenly, or with a start, into (formerly †in) a particular state or condition; to fly into a rage, burst into life, etc.; (also) to go suddenly out of one's wits. Formerly also with †off. Now rare (in later use coloured by senses in branch II.).

There are many more than just these that I’ve selected here.

The Branch II senses that you’re thinking of mean to begin, but the Branch I senses are much much older, beginning way back in Old English when we used 3-digit years. :) The Branch II senses started in Early Modern English, and those are probably the only ones you are thinking of. Those don’t apply here.

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    @HotLicks Because it's passive, and all passives are transitive by definition. It means: The sound and steps started me from my sleep. When you passivize, you exchange subject and object, and you can do that only with transitive verbs because otherwise there is no object to swap places with the subject. It's just like how transitive The ball hit me becomes I was hit by the ball in the passive. – tchrist Nov 29 '20 at 4:06
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    @user405662 There assail is the transitive verb. The critics assailed the proposal. Swap subject and object to get a proposal assailed by critics. – tchrist Nov 29 '20 at 5:41
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    I wouldn't go along with your assertion that all passives are transitives by definition. They are actually intransitive. The effect of switching from the active to the passive is to switch from a transitive clause to an intransitive one. (@user405662) – BillJ Nov 29 '20 at 7:41
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    @user405662 All passive constructions are predicated upon a transitive verb being placed into its past participle inflection and this past participle then applied to the original subject of that transitive verb, with or without whiz-deletion, and with or without the prepositional phrase using by and the original object. The OED’s example citation of start used transitively clearly does this. “I was started from my sleep by the sound of loud and very hurried steps in the hall.” is merely the result of passivizing active “The sound and steps started me from my sleep”. – tchrist Nov 29 '20 at 21:27
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    The point here is that in the passive I was started from my sleep by the sound of loud and very hurried steps in the hall, "started" is used intransitively and thus the clause is intransitive. – BillJ Nov 30 '20 at 8:29

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